For decades, international theatrical visionaries have sought to liberate the true essence of Chekhov’s plays from the comfortable warmth of samovar and tea-cozy, box-set naturalism. It’s hard to imagine any more radical deconstruction than Dimiter Gotscheff’s “Ivanov,” in which three giant, white fabric walls are broken by a line of billowing smoke, acting simultaneously as set and metaphor for titular landowner’s disintegration. It’s a provocative if not fully satisfying event from Berlin’s Volksbuhne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, imported by UCLA Live.
According to the production notes, Ivanov (a magnetic Samuel Finzi) suffers from “existential despair,” but every production element contributes to the sense of a more down-to-earth problem: a self-absorption of gargantuan proportions.
What else are we to make of a bored aristocrat (you can see it in his mien despite the sleeveless T and bedroom slippers) wandering the stage, staring out while endlessly enumerating his woes? “I’m cranky, bad-tempered, paralyzed by inertia,” the adjectives fly faster than the translated supertitles can keep up.
The narcissism cuts across all societal lines. “Each person lives for himself in a fog,” says one of Ivanov’s neighbors, who periodically dance spastically and alone through the haze to samplings of famous romantic ballads from “La Boheme” to “My Heart Will Go On.”
Eventually they careen downstage to announce their own preoccupations: a bridge partner’s bad play; the proper way to season one’s meat.
The performance style is indebted, or at least parallel, to acting guru Michael Chekhov’s “psychological gesture,” in which body and voice combine into an abstract expression of a role’s inner life. In this “Ivanov,” thesps gesture character’s psychologies with uninhibited gusto.
A genteel lady wondering what’s in the tea shouts her question like a Gauleiter. Ivanov’s frustrated foreman (Milan Peschel) wraps up his hatred for the ruling class in a dance of twisted limbs and facial muscles. When a genial acquaintance (Wolfram Koch) wants to bond with Ivanov, he lies down to mirror his idol’s prone, knee-up position.
Every little gesture, as the song goes, has a meaning all its own.
Such outlandish physical expression of innermost desires is entertainingly expressive, though not much is left of Chekhov once the novelty wears off.
The style and elaborate design scheme seem sort of all-purpose, hardly organic to, or proceeding from, “Ivanov.” During long stretches one can imagine, say, Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” staged there, with Oscar and Felix gutturally screeching, “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguini,” and “Now it’s garbage” downstage, as the Pigeon sisters jerkily vogue through the smoke behind them.
More importantly, only the rare “Ivanov” finds the proper balance between farce and melodrama; this one sacrifices character’s heartbreak for circus stunts.
Finzi’s world-weary intellectual, blinking and shyly smiling at us to elicit our sympathy, forfeits our goodwill through his ribaldry and callousness — especially when casually informing his ailing wife (Almut Zilcher) of her death sentence as if squashing a bug.