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Modern dress Chekhov presented by Russia’s Theatre of Nations proves to be a revelation as to how classics are updated in Moscow.

The chance to see Anton Chekhov’s first produced play, Ivanov, not only in the original Russian (with English surtitles) but in modern dress proves to be a revelation. Staged by Russia’s State Theatre of Nations and as presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival, this is a rare opportunity to see this usually neglected Chekhov classic, seen in New York in English on only three occasions since it was first written: 1966 on Broadway with Sir John Gielgud, 1998 at Lincoln Center with Kevin Kline, and in 2012 at the Classic Stage Company with Ethan Hawke. Like the recent Australian version of Chekhov’s first written play, Platonov (renamed The Present in Andrew Upton’s update), Timofey Kulyabin’s production is not only in modern dress but updated to a drama set in our time.

While contemporary American productions of Shakespeare do not change any lines, our modern versions of authors like Moliere are completely rewritten and revised. However, the Russians are not so squeamish. Originally staged in Moscow in 1887, Ivanov is a now period piece of turn-of-the-last-century bourgeois life under the tsars. Often referred to as “Hamlet in the Russian manner” (though Chekhov’s Seagull has more elements of Shakespeare’s play), it also picks up on the theme of the “superfluous man,” as well as parodying such works all literate Russians would have known back then like Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. However, all of this is not so well known today.

Evgeny Mironov in the title role of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” presented by State Theatre of Nations (Photo credit: Sergei Petrov)
While American directors worry whether Chekhov intended his plays to be viewed as comedy or tragedy, Kulyabin treats it as modern drama. Where numbers have to be updated (900 thousand rubles loan for 1887’s 9,000 rubles), a card game eliminated, snatches of songs are needed in the second act party scene, and a wedding hall for the fourth act, those changes have been made. Television sets abound as do smart phones, all the necessities of contemporary life. A certain amount of humor is created with the inappropriate party presents in Act II, none of which Chekhov enumerated.

Elizaveta Boyarskya and Evgeny Mironov in a scene from Act IV of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” presented by State Theatre of Nations (Photo credit: Sergei Petrov)
At the center of the play is Russian film and stage star Evegeny Mironov, artistic director of Theatre of Nations. A brooding, nearly silent presence, his Ivanov, a former idealist, is now self-loathing for his idleness and betrayal of his marriage vows. Married to Anna for the last five years, and even though she has changed her religion and lost her family for him, he had fallen out of love with her, possibly an example of what used to be called the seven year itch. Too restless to stay home at nights while Anna is dying of tuberculosis, he visits the Lebedevs in the evenings where there is always a lively party and the beautiful and rich 20-year-old daughter Sasha has fallen in love with him, making him feel young again.

He is surrounded by his foolish, wastrel Uncle Matvey Shabelskiy, the corrupt and dishonest distant relative Mikhail Borkin and his wife’s doctor, Evgeny Lvov, a romantic who takes honesty to a new level. While Lvov continually reminds him of his duty to his wife, Ivanov allows Sasha to pursue him as he will soon be free to remarry. However, his own integrity leads to the final tragedy which seems to be inevitable.

Mironov’s soft spoken, somber presence grounds the play. Though we don’t know if he ever loved his wife or not, here he is not a comic anti-hero as he was played by Kline and Hawke. While a well-brought up young lady of 1887 would not show her emotions too readily, reset in contemporary times, allows Kulyabin’s cast to emote to their hearts’ content. As Sasha, Elizaveta Boyarskaya is extremely intense in her pragmatic love for Ivanov, hoping to save him. So too Chulpan Khamatova’s Anna is a figure of pathos as she begs her husband to spend more time with her, but ultimately realizes the depths of his perfidy.

Victor Verzhbitskiy and Igor Gordin in a scene from Chekhov’s “Ivanov” presented by State Theatre of Nations (Photo credit: Sergei Petrov)
Both Viktor Verzhbitskiy as Uncle Matvey and Alexander Novin as Borkin are amusing as the outrageous hangers-on in Ivanov’s life, the former an old drunken sot, the other a wily con-artist. Igor Gordin as Sasha’s father has his drunkenness down pat, just as Natalya Pavlenkova as his wife Zinaida as a stingy money lender makes her greed her prime character trait. In this play which Chekhov wrote to show there were no villains or angels in the world, Dmitry Serdyuk’s Dr. Lvov is a portrait of a man whose very honesty has become a detrimental characteristic. Marianna Shults as the rich widow Marfa Babakina is a fully drawn study of a woman who lives for pleasure because she can afford to, while Olga Lapshina as middle-aged Avdotia Nazarovna amuses as a woman who can always be counted on to sing a song or lead a toast.

Oleg Golovko’s four sets cleverly handle the updated script: set in a provincial town, Ivanov now lives in an apartment of several rooms, with a balcony; the Lebedevs appear to have a cabin in the woods; Ivanov’s office is now a modern workplace with an anteroom, and the fourth act wedding scene takes place in a modern catering hall complete with a previous off-stage ceremony which can be periodically heard. His costumes for the cast of 14 beautifully define all of the characters, from the older women whose tight dresses are inappropriate, to the uncle’s rakish outfit, to Ivanov’s sober suits, to Sasha’s tasteful, lovely dresses which flatter her beautiful figure.

Not only does this Theatre of Nations production suggest that Chekhov’s Ivanov needs to be reexamined in the United States, but also shows us the way to update classics to bring them contemporary relevance. Even in a language unfamiliar to most New Yorkers, Timofey Kulyabin’s production, led by Evgeny Mironov, is an engrossing, riveting drama that brings modern clarity to a 131-year-old play. Though it has a running time of slightly over three hours, the play never lags and it’s always compelling.