Just before the curtain rises, director Eugene Douglas hops on stage to address the crowd.
"I can't tell you how excited I am you're all here tonight," he says. "I'm pumped. I am so pumped!"
For me, it's always heartening to see creative types express this kind of enthusiasm for their projects. Douglas' passion seems to have fueled the action on stage. In Ivanov, he's managed to coax some smart and energetic performances from an accomplished student cast.
Douglas' production plays through this weekend at UNM's Rodey Theatre. Chekhov's first full-length play to be staged, Ivanov has never been considered a masterpiece on par with his later, better-known plays such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard. That said, the play, composed when Chekhov was only 27 years old, still contains some remarkable displays of the Russian writer's innate literary wit.
Soon after the curtain rises we learn that Ivanov (Jared Thompson) is deeply in debt. We also learn that his wife, Anna (Sara Escobedo), suffers from tuberculosis and will soon die. Anna, a Jew, gave up both her religion and her family to marry Ivanov. He repays her by cheating on her with other women and subjecting her to various forms of psychological torture.
Although he resists buying a cherry-red convertible, Ivanov ails from a profound mid-life crisis. He hates his wife. He hates his life. Most crucially, he loathes himself. He spends much of the play attempting to explain this existential misery to his uncle, the Count Shabyelsky (Lance Kelly); Anna's doctor, Lvov (Alexander Lane); his estate manager, the buffoonish Borkin (Josh Stash Banner Hunt); and his rich, alcoholic friend Lyebedev (Luke Higgins). Unfortunately, most of these people are almost as miserable as Ivanov, so he doesn't get a lot of sympathy.
Eager to escape the company of his hacking, neglected wife, Ivanov spends most evenings binge-drinking at Lyebedev's house. During the second act, he flees to Lyebedev's to celebrate the birthday of his friend's teenage daughter, Sasha. Before he arrives, cynical and occasionally anti-Semitic jokes zip through the room. When Ivanov finally stumbles through the front door, gloom settles over the room like damp ash. This guy really knows how to kill a party.
For whatever reason, though, Sasha gets the hots for this brooding, selfish jerk. They initiate an affair, which eventually ends up killing Ivanov's wife.
All this might sound depressing, and it is—for the characters, at least. The gloom is alleviated, though, with giant doses of farcical dark comedy. Chekhov's primary theme might be distinctly nihilistic, but he knows how to keep his audience entertained.
This UNM production makes use of a very good adaptation of the play by South African playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood. Harwood's streamlined version cuts out some of the anachronisms and redundancies from Chekhov's original script, making the play more palatable for modern audiences.
This production does go down smooth. The cast is mostly very good. Hunt, in one of the main comedic roles, does some great clowning, as does Jen Stephenson in the role of the plump Babakina and Kelly as Shabyelsky. The best performance in the show probably comes from Luke Higgins as Ivanov's perpetually blitzed friend, Lyebedev. Higgins brings plenty of nuance to his role, and he's serene and assured every moment he's on stage.
Except for a battered piano on wheels that looks oddly out of place in the fourth act, the sets and costuming are also fantastic. The production isn't quite as innovative as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which Douglas staged in UNM's Theatre X a while back, but Douglas injects a lot of style and vision into this enjoyable show.
The most common of all Russian surnames, Ivanov equates to Smith in English. As such, Ivanov is Chekhov's version of everyman, suffering from the twin psychological diseases of nihilism and ennui. As one character says (I'm paraphrasing), "Life is like a flower blossoming in a meadow. Sooner or later a goat comes along, gobbles up the flower and craps it out its rear." Thankfully, Chekhov has made the radical decision to respond to this deeply cynical world view with laughter instead of groans.