Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pared-down drama frigid but forceful

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the cold wind that can heard blowing at the outset of Anton Chekhov's seldom-staged Ivanov is nothing compared with the extreme chill of the arctic vortex that envelopes the title character.

The frosty temperature of the Russian master's first full-length play inspired WJT artistic producer Michael Nathanson to set his potent new adaptation in snowbound 1952 Winnipeg, where the inhabitants are still dealing with flood damage.

Inside one home, Anna admires the view of the frozen river -- depicted in appropriate black and white on the rear-wall screen of the Berney Theatre -- with her unimpressed, mopey husband Ivanov. Nathanson snaps off a few jokes at the expense of Winterpeg before he gets down to the much more sober business of introducing a depressed man some call the Russian Hamlet for the way he faces his own to-be-or-not-to-be moment.

Ivanov is in despair over his flood-ruined business and mounting debts -- and worse, Anna is dying of tuberculosis. He is feeling especially guilty about falling out of love with the woman, who renounced her Judaism to marry him and has been shunned by her family. So he escapes every night to his neighbour's house to see pretty 25-year-old Sasha, earning himself the constant harangues of her smugly self-righteous doctor, Peter.

The setup is surprisingly biographical -- Chekhov was engaged to a Jewish woman in 1886 at the same time he was a physician suffering from tuberculosis and money worries. The next year he wrote Ivanov, an apprentice work in which he began wrestling with the themes that would emerge a decade later in his groundbreaking drama The Seagull.

Nathanson has dulled his knife, paring Chekhov's script into a raw 90 minutes, with only four of the 18 original characters surviving the cut. He has added a scene between Anna and Peter that adds sexual tension, which might explain the latter's over-attentiveness with his patient.

Much of the humour created by the supporting roles has been sacrificed for the sake of economy, leaving the focus on a broken, exasperating man haunted not by someone else, la Hamlet, but by himself.

Ivanov is heavy company, but the sterling work of a local cast under the steady hand of director Mariam Bernstein never falters under its considerable weight.

Arne MacPherson channels all the lead character's misery and self-loathing, only once, while with Sasha, allowing a momentary smile to unfurrow his brow. His externalized performance makes Ivanov's torment disturbingly real. His strong work lifts the whole production.

Sarah Constible conveys fragile dignity as the wronged Anna, and is bitingly effective when her character turns on her husband. Laura Lussier provides a study in youthful bad judgment as Sasha clings to the belief, more a delusion, that she can save Ivanov from himself. The Peter character gets more stage time from Nathanson and Paul Essiembre makes the most of being Ivanov's most vociferous foe.

As Chekhov makes clear in Ivanov, no man has a more powerful enemy than his own mind.

-- -- --

The spotlight in Swan Song is on an elderly actor who wakes up after his sendoff performance in a drunken daze, all alone in an empty theatre.

Already Svietlovidoff feels forgotten, despite the evening's 16 curtain calls and three wreaths. He then discovers a prompter in the form of a puppet, to whom he spills out his fears about "draining the bottle of his career," and not being remembered by the crowds who used to cheer him.

This 1888 Chekhov vaudeville celebrates the theatre as a house of dreams and is played touchingly by Graham Ashmore, decked out in a dapper suit accessorized with a black armband. It's a short, melancholy piece that allows a performer like Svietlovidoff -- and Ashmore -- to display his robust acting chops through emotional high points from King Lear, Hamlet and Othello. Swan Song is minor Chekhov that gets a professional polish.

-- -- --

And now for something completely different at ChekhovFest.

A gaggle of bouffant clowns called the Talentless Lumps make the pilgrimage to the playwright's Moscow grave in hopes of resurrecting him, in the same way the fest has for Winnipeggers.

Five colourfully attired grotesques sit in front of a nearby cherry tree, getting drunk on hootch called bodka and leading the audiences in rude chants of the boisterous show's title. The Russian spirit moves them to dance, plan a trip to the Crimea to get consumption and complain about their boredom.

Depending on your mood, it will all seem, like any Chekhov play, very tragic or very funny. The loopy goings-on in his cemetery surely had Chekhov turning over in his grave.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 G9

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