WJT's Ivanov breathes life into Chekhov classic

Presented by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre as part of ChekhovFest, this brand-new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s first full-length play is penned by WJT artistic producer Michael Nathanson.
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre presents Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Michael Nathanson as part of ChekhovFest 2014. (Dylan Hewlett)

The sandbags strewn around the edges of Darrell Baran’s set for Ivanov aren’t there just to tell us the play has been transplanted to Winnipeg. Heaped as they are with piles of bricks, they also suggest a crumbling house — and indeed, that’s very much what we see in this adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s first full-length play.

Presented by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre as part of ChekhovFest, this brand-new adaptation of the 1887 play is penned by WJT artistic producer Michael Nathanson.

He moves the setting to Winnipeg in 1952 — an environment that’s certainly suitable to Chekhov’s story of mental, emotional, and physical decay. And the repression associated with the time period speaks to the inability to name Ivanov’s real problem: depression.

As our central character, Ivanov (Arne MacPherson) is a man struggling to “know his own heart” and tormented by his own sadness, but also one trying to hold together a tenuous marriage with his physically ailing wife, Anna (Sarah Constible).

Laura Lussier appears in Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's Ivanov for Chekhovfest 2014. (Dylan Hewlett)
Her doctor, Peter Jonovich (Paul Essiembre) castigates Ivanov for his selfishness in failing to better care for Anna. And when Ivanov becomes the object of affection for his 25-year-old neighbour, Sasha (Laura Lussier), Peter casts himself in the role of a sort of Van Helsing, crusading against the soul-sucking monstrosity of Ivanov.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this modernized adaptation of the play is that we may feel more sympathy for Ivanov than Chekhov’s original audience — one without a name for his clinical depression — would have.

In a nuanced portrait, thanks both to Nathanson’s writing and MacPherson’s achingly tortured performance, Ivanov is far from a perfect man, but is also not the monster Peter would make him out to be.

The adaptation isn’t uniformly successful. While it has moments of haunting, poetic writing (“You can’t imagine how corroded my heart feels,” Ivanov says) it also sometimes retains the stiff formality in language that’s common in Chekhov translations, but feels incongruous with the setting.

The bigger problem is one that has its roots in Chekhov’s original: it’s unclear why Sasha becomes so infatuated with Ivanov. The depth of her affection is never in doubt — thanks largely again to a superb performance from Lussier, who creates an entirely believable chemistry with MacPherson. But its source remains a mystery, and as their relationship becomes central to the story, that’s problematic.

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre presents Ivanov by Chekhov, adapted by Michael Nathanson. (Winnipeg Jewish Theatre)
But Ivanov remains a compelling story (although, as with most Chekhov plays, not an awful lot really happens onstage — though this is perhaps more plot-driven that later plays like The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard). And director Mariam Bernstein’s production does the smart script full justice — the four-member cast all turn in outstanding performances.

Essiembre finds layers to the doctor, a character who could easily be played monochromatically. And Constible delivers a wonderfully balanced performance as Anna — she’s able to deliver cold, sharp dialogue with remarkable subtlety, and still make Anna a relatable and sympathetic character.

Ivanov isn’t generally considered one of Chekhov’s best plays, but more a prototype for greater works to come. But thanks to a thoughtful adaptation and spectacular performances, this Ivanov certainly doesn’t feel out of place in a festival celebrating the work of a master playwright.

WJT’s Ivanov runs at the Berney Theatre (at the Asper Jewish Community Campus) until Feb. 9. Hear Joff Schmidt's review on CBC's Up to Speed with host Ismaila Alfa at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 30.