Russian vs. Russian: Ivanov Revisited

Ivanov is a stunningly beautiful work of art. Though he was only 27 when it premiered, Ivanov shows all the subtlety and tenderness that would only grow in Anoton Chekov's later, more famous works. The new production of Ivanov now running at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) is also astonishingly gorgeous. Directed by Yuri Yeremin, one of Russia's most respected directors, the A.R.T. production unfolds like a visual symphony. Were the play acted in the original Russian, it would still be a joy to watch. Unfortunately, this beauty is the downfall of the A.R.T.'s Ivanov. The subtle eloquence of Chekov's masterpiece finds little room to express itself in the lushness of Yeremin's vision, and what ensues is a battle between two equally valid, but ultimately incompatible, forms of beauty--the understated and the grand. Ivanov is a play about the unspoken wars that rage inside our consciousness. But Yeremin's Ivanov is about another sort of battle: an almost literal fight between a brilliant text and a brilliant, but misguided, production.

Going to an A.R.T show always brings with it a certain air of the carnivalesque. Artistic Director Robert Brustein has assembled an astonishingly innovative team of theater technicians, and they're usually over-eager to flex their muscles. Ivanov is certainly not without its own bag of tricks. But Yeremin never lets these tricks develop into a full-fledged side-show. And how could they? Yeremin's staging and visual landscaping of Chekov's play is so breath-taking that we cannot be distracted from it. In Yeremin's hands, Ivanov on stage becomes as lush as Dr. Zhivago on film. The degree of unity that Yeremin orchestrates on a sensory level is downright astonishing. Scott Bradley's sets are a work of art in themselves, something of a cross between installation art and Isamu Noguchi's minimalist sets for the New York City Ballet. Add to that the light design of John Ambrosone, for whom no slant of light or subtlety of shading is unattainable, and the stoic formalism of Catherine Zuber's costumes, which make Chekov's rural social philosophers seem as though they could just melt into the landscape, and you have a two-hour-long painting on the stage. Yeremin's staging makes every use of this artistic ingenuity. His actors move more like dancers than farmers. Yeremin has a brilliant sense of space, horizontal and vertical. The simple act of swinging in a hammock becomes a study of one man's motion across an empty plane. In Yeremin's hands, the A.R.T.'s corps of performers become points in space--tiny, beautiful additions to the landscape, like the figures in a Hiroshige print.

And therein lies the problem of the A.R.T'.s Ivanov. Yeremin may want his actors to fade like tiny points of light into the world around them, but Chekov's text is meant to act as a magnifying glass, to make the world of social conventions and thinly veiled subtexts appear larger than life. Chekov is the great playwright of the strained relationships humans have with themselves and with one another; looking in Chekov for the larger metaphysical themes of man in landscape that Yeremin's visuals try to evoke is a lost cause. Yes, Ivanov is about loneliness and isolation, but not the loneliness and isolation of standing in an empty field. It's about the loneliness and isolation we can feel when we're sitting in a tiny room with our closest friends. Yeremin's decision to eliminate characters from the stage, his attempts to strip Ivanov to its core the way Ivanov himself is stripped to his emotional core is an attack on the text, and the battle that ensues obscures both Yeremin's and Chekov's brilliance.

This battle comes across most clearly in the way Yeremin directs his actors. Ivanov tells the story of Nikolai Ivanov, a once idealistic young landowner now made tired and obsolete by the failures of the liberal reforms of Czar Alexander III. Ivanov is sick of his life, sick of his wife now dying of tuberculosis, sick of his entire milieu. He is bored with his very existence. The insight and sensitivity that Chekov shows for his characters and their problems comes across in whispers and unsaid words, in the meanings that we hide underneath meaningless social conventions. For Yeremin, though, Chekov's characters must be as grand and deliberate as the sets. Arliss Howard's Ivanov is endlessly and openly angst-ridden. He mopes around the stage so that we cannot help but notice his misery, strips to the waist and spreads his arms like Christ on the cross, and by the end shouts his anguish to all who will listen. Debra Winger as Ivanov's wronged and ignored wife Sarah goes from the almost unbearably saintly (Sarah of the Infinite Patience) straight to Medea mode (Sarah the Terrible). And Benjamin Evett as her doctor comes across more like the Scourge of God than a concerned physician.

The center of Yeremin's production simply cannot hold. Yeremin turns the speeches Chekov meant his characters to address to one another into performance pieces directed at the audience, turns moments of quiet, embarrassed emotional confessions into visual spectacles. Gone is the intimacy that makes Chekov brilliant and the nuance that makes him profound. Ivanov the play is too beautiful a play to be treated so harshly. And Ivanov the production is too gorgeous to engage in such a struggle. Chekov and Yeremin are both brilliant, but their brilliance is not of the sort that can be reconciled.


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