Moscow’s Theatre of Nations arrived in New York to present a stunning contemporary rendition of Anton Chekhov’s tragic drama, Ivanov.
Finding the character of Nikolai Ivanov, Theatre of Nations Artistic Director Evgeny Mironov is charismatic and agile. With a background that includes working with Declan Donnellan, Robert Lepage, and Robert Wilson, his background in international theater work is only lightly outweighed by his latest triumphs with Theatre of Nations. In Ivanov, he is groaning about bad debt, the emotional stress of a failing marriage, and desire for healthy challenge; he strikes a balance between intentional fury and clear vision. At an astonishing tempo, he rattles off entire paragraphs about his melancholy and depression.
Ivanov was originally performed at the Fyodor Korsh Theatre in Moscow in 1885. Theatre of Nations is based in the same building. With a production completely in Russian, with English subtitles on three sides, the company finds moments of levity in what was originally a four-act drama. The play begins in a simple home, with an ailing Anna, the wife of Nikolai, appearing in the kitchen with a wrapped, bald head. Anna (Chulpan Khamatova) is an entirely sympathetic character in Chekov’s world. Relying on a doctor, Evgeny Lvov, speaking in breathy tones, Anna is absolutely watchable. Meanwhile, on a porch in the right side of the stage, Misha is chatting with Nikolai about new ways to maintain their upper middle class status and resolve debt. Their introductory discourse prepares for larger debates.
Nikolai Ivanov is often charging forward, and bursting into highly intricate phrases. His uncle, a character actor, Matvey Shabelskiy (Viktor Verzhbitskiy), carries the tones we associate with classical Chekhovian drama. At the end of the first scene, the roots of the drama firmly in place and the characters so clearly established, the stage splits open and the family photos appear at a different side than the front door of Nikolai’s home.
It is now the home of Lebedev Pavel, his wife, Zinaida, and their daughter Sasha, played by the powerful Elizaveta Boyarskaya. Around a large table they drink, sing with Babakina Marfa, Borkin Mikhail, and share sparklers. There is even a moment to dance on the table. It’s a meaningful departure from the stoic world of the first scene. With an ebullient joy that ripples forward, the large cast drives the plot to newfound places. For an English speaker, the entire stage is alive with a sense of frivolity so welcome in the drama. By the end of the scene, Ivanov will set his sights on Sasha, taking steps toward abandoning Anna. With dynamic staging, showing the oppositional force in Ivanov’s love, Anna, now wearing a black wig, sees his betrayal.
The last scene reveals Sasha in a glittering white wedding dress. Against a beautiful green background, the new happy couple, Nikolai and Sasha, are greeted by friends and family members. Sasha is now a mature adult, capable of winning her own battles. With glamorous Set and Costume Design by Oleg Golovko, the stage is set for a tête-à-tête that gives way to an argument that will leave Ivanov dead, in a chair, hunched to one side. The poetry in the last moment speaks to a director’s virtuosity and an actor’s astonishing portrayal of a man at wit’s end.
What makes this production so appealing for an English-speaking audience is the reverence for the Chekhovian text, the dedication to individuality within a cohesive ensemble, and a sense of theatrical might. It is in the acting that the truth of each character is revealed. Stage Director Timofey Kulyabin discovers each moment of humor and tragedy. Over three hours and ten minutes, it is a fascinating contemporary world of surprise, and even, revenge.