by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Pawel Moroz
at The Repertory Theatre, 23 Norden Street, New Britain
Community theatres deserve a lot of credit. Theatre is a lot of hard work and an expensive undertaking. These companies generally lack the rehearsal time and resources of a professional group. The actors, directors, designers, stage crew, ushers, etc. all put on a show around their day jobs and families for love, not money.
When I see a local company doing the umpty-millionth Neil Simon play because they are inexpensive crowd-pleasers, I nod and understand that the group needs to pay the bills. When I see that New Britain's Repertory Theatre is staging the 3-hour, rarely-produced Ivanov, I sit up and take notice. It is hard enough to get one of Connecticut's Tony-winning theatres to tackle a Chekhov, leastways one that is not Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard or The Seagull. All that nice stuff being said, The Repertory Theatre's production of the Chekhov tragicomedy is tragic and comic, by and large not intentionally.
The lights rise on a simple garden/drawing room set designed by director Pawel Moroz (with assistance by Michael J. Bane). It's a smart, flexible design of simple 2x4s with curtains and props that are rearranged to indicate the different locations of the play. The lighting of tilting tapered candles right next to the drapery added an exciting element of danger in the mostly-wood theatre, as I quickly scanned for emergency exits.
Flanking the stage are white scrims, translucent fabric stretched across boards that when backlit hide nothing. Scrims are used to show action while separating it from the main playing space. In this case, the scrim was not meant to serve that purpose and the audience ends up seeing actors waiting to go on stage, whacking into shrubbery when exiting, and stagehands playing with their iPhones. Next to the scrims are unnecessary screens showing what appear to be houses in New Britain, not the homes of the Russian agrarian middle class.
The play centers around Nikolai Ivanov, a gentleman farmer married to a Jewish woman named Anna, who has turned her back on her faith, her family and her sizable dowry to be with the man she loves. Ivanov, over time, finds that his life, finances and feelings for Anna have soured. He has become a big, fat bummer to be around and is apparently ruining the health and emotional well-being of the entire Russian countryside. Mired in a deep depression, he begins to cheat on Anna with the young Sasha Lebedev, who is determined to marry him.
Many comparisons are made in the script between Hamlet and Ivanov's psychological morass. Aaron L. Schwartz's Ivanov, however, is less Prince of Denmark and more like a big whiny-baby in a Woody Allen psychoanalytical tailspin. One cannot have any notion why Sasha would fall for him or why Anna would want to stay with him. Kate Bunce as Anna renders the finest and most shaded performance in the piece. Her scenes with Miles Everett, another fine actor (when not endlessly pacing or staring into some middle distance), actually work. Charles Merlis as the comic Count Shabelsky has a grand time, but does ham it up a bit and ends up bouncing off his much stiffer cast-mates.
The audience, dazed and confused after three hours, showed a great deal of excitement when a bat dislodged itself from a hiding place in the curtains and flapped around the stage during Act 2. The bat livened things up until it disappeared and then we had to wait, wait, wait for Ivanov to end his life (and the play) in the abrupt and anticlimactic finale. At which point, the woman in front of me jumped out of her seat and announced this was the worst thing she had ever seen, making me wonder why she didn't leave at one of the two intermissions when only the cast I and were required to stay to the bitter end.
Photo by Pawel Moroz.