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NAATCO's revival of Chekhov's difficult drama is worthwhile viewing despite its less-than-ideal leading man. logo
Orville Mendoza and Joel de la Fuente in Ivanov
Photo © Richard Termine
Ivanov bears all of Anton Chekhov's usual masterstrokes: dissatisfied lead characters, mismatched lovers, a clueless bourgeoisie, and even a dash of brutal humor. And yes, there are comic moments in this revival by the National Asian-American Theatre Company, which has arrived at the Mint Theater after a brief run earlier this spring. But the tone of the play is somber from start to finish, and director Jonathan Bank should be commended for avoiding the common trap of strong-arming shtick into Chekhov's work.

Certainly, there's little humorous about the show's subject matter. Nobody really knows what went wrong with Nicolai Ivanov, even though almost everybody has a theory. Most of the town suspects he is ruining his life by marrying his Jewish wife Anna (née Sarah) for her family's money -- although he received a rude awakening when her parents cut off her inheritance following her conversion to Christianity. And when he finds out that she's dying of tuberculosis, Ivanov treats her abominably, even snubbing the doctor's warning that his cruelty is killing her. Of course, most of the town's anti-Semites couldn't care less of what happens to her either way.

The secret to a compelling Ivanov is a compelling Ivanov, but Joel de la Fuente overplays his character's depression and gives the short shift to his charm, making it hard to understand what makes the women of the play love him. Moreover, while the actor has a commanding presence, the lack of variety in his portrayal makes the play repetitious. On the other hand, Deepti Gupta as Anna has a quiet intensity that makes her magnetic to watch -- that she's the only Indian actress in the cast gives her a sense of "otherness" that's appropriate for her character.

The supporting actors are generally strong. The innocent-looking Michi Barall is well cast as Ivanov's young love interest Sasha. C.S Lee as Lebedev, Sasha's well-intentioned father, and Arthur Acuna as the too-earnest doctor create seriocomic performances that make their characters memorable.Thom Sesma is winningly abrasive as Count Shabelsky, while Rochele Tillman is a hoot as Martha, the Count's rotund and ravishing betrothed. And when the buoyant character Borkin enters a party and one of the characters remarks, "The atmosphere's changed. Did you notice?", Orville Mendoza has enough energy to make the observation ring true.

The scenic design by Sarah Lambert is striking, but sets a far too heavy tone. All of the furniture is institutional and metallic, and chains hang from the ceiling. (For a scene that takes place at a birthday party, one of the actors attaches decorations to the links.). Stephen Petrilli's stark blue lighting weighs down the atmosphere even further. Only Jane Shaw's sound design of Russian folksongs and Elly van Horne's modern costumes allow for moments of levity.

Although Ivanov is a difficult show to stage, the captivating characters, rich dialogue, and classic Chekhovian themes make even a flawed production like this one worth catching.

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