This year, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s complex venture, Chekhov Celebration, certainly gives cause for celebrating. For one thing, the project is as close as we ever get to repertory theatre in this city. 23 actors, 15 of them local, appear in nearly 50 roles in nine plays. This gives us the opportunity to see many exceptional artists together in a short time and to admire and cherish those who live among us. This is also a way to extensively experience and further understand the work of the world-renowned Russian playwright enhanced by insightful directors. Add to this a remarkable program book full of interesting, thoughtful articles about Chekhov, about Russia, about translating and about what it means to be an actor.
In that book you will learn, as you could elsewhere, that one of the plays here, Ivanov, adapted by Tom Stoppard, has always contained problems and that Chekhov himself was never fully satisfied with his script. Such flaws soon become evident in the first two scenes of the four. But, as momentum and developments build, the virtues become clear, significant and, even, actually funny.
A constant subject is Chekhov’s idea of “comedy.” As you can read, he wasn’t aiming for big laughs, but rather he saw the characters he created as amusing in their foibles, their illusions, their behavior, even when there were tragic consequences.
Except for late in the play, you probably won’t find yourself laughing, nor should you expect to; that's not Chekhov's kind of comedy. But this is live theatre, not aiming for intellectual exercise or exploration of theses.
Characteristically the people depicted in Ivanov resemble those in later, more admired plays such as Three Sisters whose exceptional PICT production is ongoing.
In this case, for too long at first, this means more talk than action, as if nothing significant is developing. At the center is Nikolay Ivanóv, once full of life but feeling bewildered and unhappy, heavily in debt to Zinaida Lebdeva, and no longer in love with his tubercular wife Anna. Dr. Lvóv, attending Anna, dislikes Nikolay and criticizes him for spending too much time with Zinaida and her husband Pavel. Their young daughter Sasha is deeply in love with Nikolay, of whom gossipy neighbors are constantly critical. Add to this a sub-plot: Count Matthew Shabelsky, Ivanov’s maternal uncle, likewise an older man, is vacillating about marrying a wealthy young widow named Marfa, a typical inventive Chekhovian parallel.
These relationships may not immediately be clear; the program book does not identify the characters in relation to each other in this case any more than it does for Three Sisters. You might want to prepare, even though you shouldn’t have to.
Director Andrew S. Paul has done several things to try to overcome the sense that nothing of consequence happens in the first two scenes; he keeps them as lively as possible, although one or twice he pushes a little too hard to make something funny. In the later parts of the play, though, he and his cast have it all together, getting the fun out of truly laughable moments while making new developments feel like a galloping horseback ride through a dense forest.
Initially he has David Whalen’s Ivanov thoroughly vigorous, seething with anger, Whalen, always a dynamic actor, doesn’t get across the melancholy Hamlet-like introspection to which Chekhov even refers. Whalen doesn’t show the debilitating side of Ivanov’s depression and self-doubts, missing the man’s more complex dimensions. This undercuts Ivanov’s emotional trajectory later, as if he hasn’t changed significantly. Moreover Paul has Nike Doukas avoid showing the effect of Anna’s debilitated state; she is supposed to be profoundly ill whereas Doukas plays those scenes sweetly and with strength. Both choices make it look as if director Paul wanted to avoid having the early scenes look too somber, evading too much darkness, emphasizing pace, not internal struggles.
In the role of Nikolay’s friend Pavel, Martin Giles superbly gets across the man’s jolly vitality and sincerity. CMU senior Katya Stepanova, playing his daughter Sasha, has all the right warmth and strength. As The Count, Nikolay’s uncle, Alan Stanford most often looks as if he’s playing Oscar Wilde wit, getting every last drop out of the lines instead of coalescing into a definite character. The Count, like Nikolay, doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Yet Stanford doesn’t show any kind of connection with Nikolay and, most of the time, seems separate rather than part of the ensemble.
The costumes, sets and music all enrich the look and feel of the entire production. Here we have a great and relatively rare chance to witness this less-known Chekhov play and to experience its virtues while watching many fine actors making the best of their art.
Ivanov continues through August 25th at Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412/ 394-3353. Or www.picttheatre.org