Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Quazen.com Review of The Hunger and Thirst Theatre Collective's IVANOV

Eric Grogan reviews a revival of Anton Chekov’s early work, as presented by The Hunger and Thirst Theatre Collective.

Anton Chekhov’s ‘’comedy” Ivanov is suddenly a big deal.

Ethan Hawke is about to essay the title role in a new production, opening on October 17th, at Classic Stage Company, while the brand new theatre company, The Hunger and Thirst Theatre Collective chose the play as their inaugural production, which opened this past weekend at the Access Theatre (380 Broadway, on the 4th Floor) and plays until October 20th.

The play tells the story of intense and agitated Nikolai Ivanov and chronicles his increasing exasperation with his banal provincial existence.

Not your typical tag-line for a comedy, but then Chekhov comedies are not your typical comedies.

I had only a passing familiarity with this, one of Chekhov’s earliest works, so I wanted to peruse a copy of the play, did so and was, admittedly, not terribly impressed with it. Like the playwright, I dismissed it. I dismissed it as nothing more than a series of talky vignettes, with little substance. Sad to say, the play didn’t jump out to me on the page, but part of me was a little curious to see how the play looked on a stage, so off I went to the Access Theatre for the aforementioned revival presented by The Hunger and Thirst Theatre Collective, a theatre company created by director Patricia Lynn, actor Brian Keith MacDonald and actress Emily Kitchens.

And I’m glad I did.

Ivanov (Christopher Bonewitz) has grown weary of the stupidity of his colleagues and neighbors, while his wife, Anna (Emily Kitchens), a converted Jew is slowly dying of tuberculosis. When Lvov (Jordan Kaplan), Anna’s doctor, accuses Ivanov of exacerbating his wife’s condition with his angry temper and periods of misery, the incensed Ivanov leaves for a birthday party at the Lebedyev estate hosted by iron willed ”money grubber” Zinaida (Kymberly Tuttle) and her pathetic, but well-meaning hubby Pasha (Timothy J. Cox). Here Ivanov finds company, gossip, and Sasha (Brittanie Bond), the Lebedyev’s daughter, a starry-eyed young girl (and a bit of a firebrand) who quickly falls in love with him. Anna secretly follows Ivanov to the party, where she surprises her husband and Sasha in an embrace. Caught between mistress and dying wife, Ivanov is pulled into an ever-deepening gloom of self-examination that leads to unavoidable tragedy. Thrown into the mix are a pair of con artists Borkin (Nate Dendy) and Shabelsky (Brian Keith MacDonald), (picture more diabolical versions of the Sir Toby and Sir Andrew characters in Twelfth Night), desperate for cash, who engage in an act to bilk some dough from poor, naïve widow Martha (director Lynn).

Here’s the good news…the play does not deserve to be dismissed and neither does this production.

True, Ivanov doesn’t rank up there with Chekhov’s more popular works Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, but after seeing director Patricia Lynn’s production, I do take back my overall dismissal of the play. Ivanov is worthy of discussion and yes, performance, as this particular play should (and does) resonate with a modern audience, it certainly did with me. On the surface, the play deals with cynical people living in cynical, uncertain times (sound familiar), with little to no hope of anything, let alone where the important things in life, namely money, are going to come from, but more importantly, it deals with the lies we tell ourselves; of lives misspent and dreams unfulfilled and forever lost. Yes, in typical Chekhov form, it is a tragedy, but it is also a comedy and The Hunger and Thirst Theatre Collective’s production is a wondrous, vivid evening of theatre that was rich and fully realized, both tragically and comedically. It allowed us to see the tragedy in the comedy of the world (and vice versa), through the eyes of people we know; people that director Lynn and her talented cast hint we may even be.

The play itself provides its share of obstacles (it is Chekhov, after all) but Ms. Lynn and her team are more than up to the task, doing a fantastic job of keeping the audience engaged in not only Ivanov’s story, but the story of those around him. Ms. Lynn is to be commended for the strong pace and especially for injecting as much humor into the production as possible, as Chekhov does tend to get bogged down in the misery. It’s energetic and full of life, even in its most quiet moments.

Ms. Lynn’s production was brought to life by a dazzling cast of characters, all delivered with aplomb by an impressive cast. As the title character, Christopher Bonewitz drove the play with considerable energy and didn’t, thankfully, whine his way through the role. Bonewitz’s Ivanov is a man who knows that he’s lost, that’s he damaged goods and that his outcome at the end of the play is meant to be, because there’s nothing left for him, but in Bonewitz’s rich performance, you see brief glimpses that there’s still a little bit of fight left in him.

Another actor who hit a bull’s-eye was Timothy J. Cox, who gave a touching performance as a wonderfully realized Pasha Lebedyev, who I now think may be the most humane and graceful character in Chekhov’s canon. At first, Cox’s Lebedyev is nothing more than a silly clown, like a background performer inching his way to a close up, giggling at stories and remembrances that likely aren’t his own, but as the play progresses, we see Cox shift from silly clown to sad clown and as the play then draws to its close, there’s a quiet, subtle realization that his Lebedyev is nothing more than an empty shell of a man with nothing left, but who accepts the fate of who he is and why he is where he is in life. This realization was presented with such humanity and grace by Cox that it was quite heartbreaking at times.

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