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Did somebody decide when I wasn’t listening that this would be the season where all translations of classic plays must contain occasional forays into anachronistic contemporary language?  First came An Enemy of the People and Cyrano de Bergerac, and now Carol Rocamora’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, being used in CSC’s schizophrenically handsome/punkish production, would have us believing the playwright had his characters uttering the 19th Century Russian equivalents of “harangue,” “He’s a real operator” and “Hope you choke.”

Regarded as Chekhov’s Hamlet – probably because the title character has a lengthy soliloquy where he keeps referring to himself as Hamlet – this youthful effort helps establish the playwright’s tradition of dramatizing tales of financial woes set in grand estates.

Director Austin Pendleton’s staging has Ethan Hawke as Nikolai Ivanov, the guilt-ridden, self-loathing land owner who tried fixing his finances by marrying Anna (Joely Richardson), from a wealthy Jewish family.  But Anna lost her dowry when her parents disowned her for converting.  Now she’s dying of tuberculosis and her husband not only ignores the doctor’s recommendation to send her to Crimea, but ponders an affair with young Sasha (Juliet Rylance), the daughter of one of his creditors.

Marco Piemontese’s period costumes and Santo Loquasto’s striking setting – the front façade of a fine mansion with just enough open space to suggest the rooms inside – provide suitably stately visuals and the first half of the play, mostly expository scenes involving supporting characters, is enjoyably played in the familiar manner.  Particularly humorous is the elderly elitist give and take between Pendleton, filling in for the injured Louis Zorich as Sasha’s father, and George Morfogen as a gregarious count.  Richardson’s quiet moments when she sees her marriage crumbling are very effective and Jonathan Marc Sherman also stands out in the fine ensemble as the young moralistic doctor.

It’s not until the second half of the play when the title character begins dominating the proceedings, particularly with a lengthy soliloquy where Hawke appears to have been directed to address the audience, a practice that hadn’t been establish previously in the production.  His contemporary physicality as Ivanov confronts his own depression plays like a bad-boy rocker trying to rouse up the crowd with his rebellious anger.  In one sardonic moment he reacts to a mention of hisalma materwith a half-hearted fist pump and the established realism play is cracked when he runs up the aisle, making the actor invisible to the audience during his verbal confrontation with the doctor.

Hawke is a capable stage actor and, to his credit, he passionately dives into the interpretation with full commitment.  And perhaps there is an intentional contrast of his modern spin to the rest of the production, as there are in those contemporary blurts in the text.  But nevertheless, the result undercuts what works well in the evening and lays focus on the performer instead of the character.

Photo of Ethan Hawke by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on November 19, 2012 - by

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About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.

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