The Beauty & Humor of Decay

Classic Stage Company, NYC

If you are unfamiliar with Anton Chekhov's seldom-produced Russian twist on Hamlet, Classic Stage Company is offering a stunning opportunity to cover that gaping hole with one of their best works in recent years. The play Ivanov is a stellar piece of theater, and this production gives full rein to its high humor and devastating tragedy as it rides a very intense three hours of poetic drama.

2012 has turned out to be an inspired year for plays, and Ivanov will only make it that much more difficult for voters from the Obies & Lortels to pick the appropriate winners, as the cast, design crew, and director from this melancholy celebration of life all present very worthy contenders.

It's Ethan Hawke's face that is on all the ads, and his name that will likely draw many audience members; while this is an ensemble production, Hawke is deserving of the attention. 

Hawke appears to have wrecked himself in some method approach to portray the quickly deteriorating corpse that is Nikolai Aleksyeevich Ivanov. Hawke's voice is beaten and rough, his face betrays a lack of sleep and poor nutrition, and his energy quivers with an unsettling, manic intensity, all of which combines with his powerful performance beautifully. He moves through his scenes with ambiguity, leaving audience members to decipher for themselves if he is an unwitting villain, a self-deceiving master, or something in between, as Hawke's Ivanov struggles with this very question himself. It is a dedicated and exhausting performance that will likely require some rehabilitation time for Hawke when the play wraps.

While this is an ensemble piece sans weak links, its two elder statesmen do make particularly good showings. George Morfogen and Louis Zorich represent a fading era of Russian nobility, weighing in on opposite sides of the spectrum with their methods of coping with their regrettable positions. Morfogen creeps with a cynical and shame-ridden opportunism, while Zorich fuels his laughter and sloppy smiles with liquor. Both are stately in their deliveries and present powerful, captivating presences on the stage. Juliet Rylance offers of rare glimpse of hope and beauty as Sasha, as she valiantly fights to resuscitate a dying world. Roberta Maxwell measures out the minutes in rubles, holding the stiff lip and even stiffer purse strings of the wealthy who love to cry poor as Glenn Fitzgerald's Borkin employs every deceit and manipulation to shake down any capable of being shaken. Joely Richardson makes for a sympathetic Anna, Christ-like in her suffering and foolish in her feelings, while Stephanie Janssen plays the conscienceless Babakina, grabbing at whatever might satisfy her momentary fancy. This is a commanding cast, to be certain.

Director Austin Pendleton mans the helm of this awesome ship, masterfully blending all of these many characters into the collective whole, at the same time allowing each to develop independent themes and personalities with symphonic brilliance. Pendleton demonstrates a firm understanding of his material, a clear vision of his determined approach, and a notable authority in its execution.

Classics aren't always so enjoyable, but when they are presented as beautifully as this one is, it clears away any questions as to how such plays are crowned with such titles. Ivanov is a decisive and distinct moment in Chekhov's canon, and this current production should hold a similarly significant place in CSC's personal archives. Make sure you witness this splendid instant for yourself before it has faded into the shadow of tomorrow along with its ill-fated characters. - C. Jefferson Thom

Classic Stage Company is at 136 East 13th St. in Manhattan.

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

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