Review: THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH at Nyack Library

By: Mar. 18, 2019

Review: THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH at Nyack Library

Something really special is happening in Nyack. Last year, the over gentrification of an East Village block resulted in relocation of long-time resident company The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. After 15 seasons, the renowned, ground-breaking company found itself homeless. To its profound credit, it has managed to continue to produce in spite of its new "vagabond" status in the city. However, the company's leadership was another story.

A few random visits to the Hudson Valley convinced founding artistic directors, Craig Smith and Elise Stone that Nyack should be there new home. The village had everything they wanted in a home. NYC's loss was Nyack's gain.

In the last six months, the Pheonix has done four marvelous programs right in the Nyack Library, and the public's support has been extraordinary - it seems like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

To quote from their website: "Founded in 2004, the Pheonix is an award-winning not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to celebrate the art of storytelling and inspire the love of language through groundbreaking presentations of new and classic works performed by a repertory company of artists, and through theatre arts-in-education programs for youth. We provide an incubator for a professional ensemble of actors, directors, composers, playwrights, teaching artists, and designers to work as a powerful collective of storytellers that use theatre to explore the human condition, advance social justice, and transform the collective vision of the New York City and greater New York audiences we serve.

Review: THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH at Nyack Library The artists of the Phoenix are dedicated to promoting an ensemble-driven theatre where actors, directors, playwrights, and designers are all equal collaborators in the creative process. As an artist-directed company, the Phoenix places its decision-making power in the hands of the artists.

This past weekend their most recent offering was a small masterpiece! A new stage adaptation of THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH, the Tolstoy novella, by Stephen Sharkey.

Those familiar with the novella were in for a special treat as Sharkey completely deconstructed the plot and rearranged the POV of the storyteller into a first person rumination on life, death and everything in between. Ilyich finds himself dying from an injury sustained in a fall. But the brilliant twist is that Ilyich suddenly finds himself present at his own funeral. The story is a piece de resistance of understatement and wry humor. The audience also plays an integral role in the performance.

Artistic Director Craig Smith played the unpleasant title character with great gusto. Smith has been called "one of New York's consistently fine actors" by the New York Times and it is easy to see why. In a veritable acting masterclass, he brought enormous depth of character and layer upon layer of nuance to his Ivan. His wonderful trick was to make the arrogant and unlikeable Ilyich, an almost-sympathetic figure to the audience (despite the author providing virtually no direct reason to!)

The production was directed by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Associate Artistic Director, Leo Lion who made some bold choices with the well-worn material. He told the audience during a post-show talkback that his idea was to place the story in a setting where the audience is in effect part of a support group - a very clever choice - and a successful one.

The show will continue to be performed around the New York area for the next few months, including at stop at the Shades Repertory Theater in Garnerville.

Intelligent, thought-provoking theater like this is rare outside of the city. If that kind of art excites and inspires you, do yourself a favor and see it!

We at Rockland County would like to extend a warm welcome to the Pheonix Theatre Ensemble and we wish the company every success!

The project was made possible with funds from the Decentralization Program, a re-grant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by ArtsWestchester.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Stephen Sharkey, based on the novella by Leo Tolstoy

Starring Craig Smith (Producing Artistic Director, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble)

Directed by Leo Lion (Associate Artistic Director, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble)

-Peter Danish