European Repertory Company

By Justin Hayford

If you had only one minute to understand Chekhov, you couldn’t do better than one tiny moment in the first act of European Repertory Company’s Ivanov. The title character–a bankrupt landowner struggling with debilitating ennui–kills time in the garden with his misanthropic uncle, Count Shabyelski, his scheming estate manager, Borkin, and his wife’s condescending doctor, Lvov. Amid a flurry of repetitious chatter, Lvov drops a bomb on the crumbling Ivanov: his wife has tuberculosis. The theater chills; a death sentence has been pronounced. Then Borkin, a delightfully obnoxious man, lets out a loud sigh through flapping lips. “Whew,” he says, “that’s bad.”

In this moment–one of the most Chekhovian on a Chicago stage in recent memory–we learn that life is serious, fate is cruel, love doesn’t stand a chance against bad timing, and human beings are incapable of the heroic gestures that might elevate their lives above the level of farce. Yet in Chekhov’s eyes, our pathetic efforts to find some semblance of dignity make us dear, pitiable creatures. Like Borkin, we’re clowns bumbling along as the sky falls in.

Fortunately, European Repertory Company gives us 150 more minutes every bit as Chekhovian as this one. Director Luda Lopatina has brought this 112-year-old play into such exquisite focus and imbued it with such depth of feeling that you might think it was written yesterday. Of course, the efficient new translation by ERC cofounder Yasen Peyankov and Columbia College instructor Peter Christensen also gives the play a vitality lacking in stuffier translations. But Lopatina’s 15 cast members seem so at home in Chekhov’s tragicomic universe that they could probably have delivered a convincing production in Middle English.

Of the five full-length Chekhov plays produced during his lifetime, Ivanov is the first, and it’s generally considered the least great of the bunch. Perhaps this subgreatness is the result of writing the play in ten days at the request of a producer who specialized in farce. (Chekhov said of Ivanov, “It is put together like a pudding, with a ludicrous climax and a desperate end.”) Or perhaps it’s merely subgreat by comparison: unlike Chekhov’s meandering, moody masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, which all but abandons narrative, this play has a rather conventional plot. Ivanov–a 35-year-old estate owner who once championed liberal agrarian and educational reforms–discovers that nothing interests him anymore. Even the impending death of his once beloved wife, Anna, fails to evoke any emotion. To keep from hating her, he abandons her, fleeing nightly to the Lebedevs’ estate, where a party always seems to be in progress. But the senseless chatter there bores him–as it bores everyone else. Then the Lebedevs’ 20-year-old daughter, Sasha, drapes herself around Ivanov’s neck and pledges her undying love. That Ivanov entertains her affections is beneath contempt, as the endlessly moralizing Lvov takes pains to point out whenever he can. But Lvov needn’t waste his breath; Ivanov knows he’s a spineless scoundrel, calling himself the second Hamlet. He is a man convinced that he ruins almost every life he touches.

In another playwright’s hands, this story might have ended up as melodrama. But Chekhov de-emphasizes action–as he did in later plays–to such an extent that the melodramatic story seems almost irrelevant. In fact, half of the second act is nothing but idle party gossip. As Chekhov described Ivanov to his brother, “My whole energy is expended on a few powerful scenes–the rest is insignificant filler.” But of course insignificance was precisely what fascinated the playwright, for it was in such quotidian scenes that he saw real life unfolding. Unlike his contemporaries in Russian theater and most of his theatrical descendants, Chekhov wanted to dramatize the banal, the well-worn, the everyday. His characters, like most of us, muddle about between comedy and tragedy, never attaining enough grandeur to reach either extreme. In the words of Ronald Hingley, Chekhov presents “the spectacle of characters palpably less vital, less heroic, less significant than the average theatergoer, however inclined to self-disparagement, might reasonably suppose himself to be.”

But this understated, noncommittal approach–in which passions are muted, heroics aborted, and greatness merely glimpsed–is closer to the feel of modern life than almost anything else in Western drama. And Lopatina, herself a Russian native, understands Chekhov’s lightness of touch and throwaway style well. In stark contrast to Court Theatre’s recent overheated, disjointed Cherry Orchard, this production glides coolly, even glibly along, thumbing its nose at ideas of what makes theater important. The play positively dawdles, with characters pointing out time and again how boring everything is. But thanks to Chekhov’s and Lopatina’s skill, it dawdles through a desperate comedic emptiness–the very emptiness Beckett and Ionesco would explore half a century later–making idleness urgent. What gives the play its tragic edge is not the suicidally depressed protagonist or his terminally ill wife but the inability of anyone to behave in an appropriately tragic way. In essence, Chekhov dramatizes everything his characters don’t or won’t do.

Chekhov doesn’t give actors much to work with except the characters’ relationships. Luckily, the European Repertory Company cast make the best of what they’ve been given, creating a network of carefully nuanced affinities, associations, and alliances. As in other Chekhov plays, romantic love is next to impossible, but ordinary affection thrives; here that affection is so real it seems these actors have known one another all their lives. Ivanov may be a selfish, thoughtless, irritable bore, but Sasha’s attraction to him is unmistakable in Jennifer Kern’s masterful turn as the naive 20-year-old. Lebedev and Shabyelski, the lone old men, may drive each other mad, but stoke them with vodka and pickles and team them up against the priggish Lvov and they are in each other’s arms.

Purists may argue that this Ivanov is too light, too comedic, to qualify as classic drama. Gone are the big important speeches, the somber looks, the puffed-out chests. The actors seem to be hardly working at all, doing nothing more than what’s necessary to convey the sense of a scene. But the production’s general ease gives it the lifelike quality Chekhov struggled so hard to make actors understand, and it allows the play’s darker moments to surface with all the more horrifying surprise.

More than anything, the delicacy of this staging allows Ivanov to play out on a human scale. Nothing here is meant to impress or overwhelm us; instead we’re invited into the action–designer Joey Wade even seats the audience within the walls of Ivanov’s living room. This is art that extends naturally into our lives, the kind of drama that Chicago has become renowned for. Where else could you see such an intimate, neighborhood production of Chekhov featuring an esteemed actor like Steppenwolf’s Robert Breuler for less than 20 bucks? And where else could a scrappy, mostly non-Equity ensemble rise to the level of Breuler’s brilliance without breaking a sweat? Chekhov may show us just how pathetic we are, but if our neighbors can create a piece of theater this beautiful and intelligent, we can all hold our heads a little higher.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Maya Rosenfeld.