The title character is a pitiable man his friends wag their tongues about and shake their fingers at, a clueless schmoe trapped by his poor choices.
Depressed and despairing, Ivanov’s troubles mount as he seeks quick fixes to his debt and marriage woes. His social circle is a shallow sampling of Russian polite society, who disregard his cries for help, too self-absorbed with their own status.
The time period may be 19th century Russia, but Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov” features characters that you could find in a Woody Allen movie, a Bret Easton Ellis novel or at your corner Starbucks.
Tom Stoppard’s zingy 2008 translation of Chekhov’s melodramatic early play (1887) is akin to taking a compressed air can to a computer keyboard, removing a century of dust. Director Wayne Salomon has perceptively deconstructed Chekhov’s disdain for the idle rich and people in powerful positions in an engaging, fresh interpretation by St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Salomon has heightened the hypocrisy, alternating the frivolity of vapid friends with the inner turmoil of our anti-hero.
All 13 actors in the superb, well-cast ensemble play to their strengths. And remarkably, the black box space never seems overcrowded, thanks to Salomon’s clever staging.
Drew Battles shrewdly portrays Ivanov as a prisoner of his own impulses. A hot mess, he veers from quivering bundle of nerves to disgraceful jerk, and yet there is a modicum of sympathy for him.
He married the beautiful and wealthy Anna (the always classy Julie Layton), but five years later, has fallen out of love. Does the fact that her family disowned her after she renounced Judaism to marry in his Russian Orthodox Church have anything to do with that?
Ivanov would already appear heartless, but his neglect of Anna while her tuberculosis worsens is reprehensible. He fancies the 20-year-old Sasha, and she wants him, too. Anna’s doctor, Lvov — a strong Reginald Pierre — is the determined moral center, and plans to expose him.
Ivanov’s good friend Lebedev (B. Weller) is married to Zinaida (Teresa Doggett), a haughty woman who Ivanov borrowed a lot of money from, and time’s run out. It gets complicated because Sasha (newcomer Alexandra Petrullo) is their pretty but fickle daughter. He is obviously not a stand-up guy — and as a government official, is supposed to help peasants.
Stalwart supporting actors David Wassilak, as Borkin, a get-rich-quick schemer, and Bobby Miller, as a buffoonish Count Shabelsky, add their usual flourishes to enliven their characters. Cara Barresi gives some oomph to Babakina, a young widow in a difficult relationship with the pompous count.
Peels of laughter may emanate from his affluent friends’ vapid parties (Shannon Nara’s laugh as Lipa is quite memorable), but Ivanov’s melancholy hangs heavy in the air.
Salomon has created a darker mood through production elements, which contrast with the chic finery of the high society women and the gaiety at gatherings. Teresa Doggett’s costumes are striking recreations of that era.
Patrick Huber’s innovative and unexpected set design is framed by wood beams separated by blue fluorescent lights, creating an austere pattern that reflects the stifling, overwhelming demands on Ivanov, which threaten to suffocate him. Huber’s lighting design works in tandem to further intensify the mood.
The choice of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” to underline the play’s tone is a nice touch as well.
“Ivanov” has been thoughtfully staged and confidently acted by a diverse group, so that it leaps off the page. If you have never tackled Chekhov, this is a good place to start.
- Who: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
- When: Now through May 1; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.
- Where: Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis
- Tickets: 314-458-2978