Katona József Theatre, Budapest, at the Lincoln Center Festival: Ivanov by Anton Chekhov

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Adél Jordán as Sasha and Ernö Fekete as Ivanov in Chechov's "Ivanov." Photo Kata Schiller

Adél Jordán as Sasha and Ernö Fekete as Ivanov in Chechov’s “Ivanov.” Photo Kata Schiller


Lincoln Center Festival,
Wednesday, July 9, 2009 8:00 PM
Katona József Theatre, Budapest

by Anton Chekhov

Director – Tamás Ascher
Zsolt Khell – stage designer
Györgyi Szakács – costume designer
Tamás Bányai, lighting designer
Márton Kovács, music

Presented in conjunction with Extremely Hungary, a year-long festival of contemporary Hungarian arts.

We seem to be enjoying a Chekhov renaissance at the moment. I feel extremely fortunate to have seen all major plays within less than a year, and one of them twice! All of these productions had their flaws and misjudgements, but they were all excellent nonetheless. As a whole, they showed that American and British directors are freeing themselves from tradition and are confident with taking risks in seeking out a harder, more contemporary edge and in exploring Chekhov’s evanescent transformations of tragic and comic moments. It is easier to translate words and sentences, even subtle ones, than it is to bring humor into a foreign idiom. The British had particular trouble relating to Chekhov in the early days, when his plays were presented as domestic tragedies. The director James Whale, it is said, saw an expedient in comedy, and that broke the ice. Chekhov’s early, much revised Ivanov, on the other hand, brought this ambiguous tussle between tragedy and comedy to the fore in its early performances in Russia, creating a serious headache for its creator and the companies that produced it. This non-canonical play is perhaps not the ideal testing ground for Chekhovian dramatic principles, but, for the Katona József Theatre of Budapest, it was immensely fruitful material for exploring every twist and turn of Chekhov’s quirky genius. Of the productions we’ve reviewed here, it was by far the most daring, as well as the most consistently successful.

Chekhov was still learning his craft when he wrote Ivanov, and that is evident in its many revisions. Most critics recognize that Ivanov has its share of problems, including long speeches, talky dialogue, a reliance on a single protagonist (which he avoided in his mature plays), as well as more than one theatrical cliché, most egregiously the ending by suicide. Ivanov himself was a mixture of originality and the Russian cliché of the “superfluous man.” If director Tamás Ascher built his conception on a problem by problem analysis, it is nowhere in evidence. The performance was far too well integrated and polished for that. The Katona József Theatre is a quintessential repertory company, having developed its methods consistently since its foundation in 1982. Many of the early principles (of whom Mr. Ascher is one.) are still active, and even the most recent member has absorbed their sophisticated sense of dramaturgy, their consummate skills in movement and speech, and a theatrical culture that hovers creatively between the classic, social satire, and the absurd, with even an element of the circus. When they introduce Chekhov’s problematic work into this ambiance, the results are both a transformation and a revelation of its inner core.

Ascher presented, in Hungarian, of course, Chekhov’s final revision of the play, but he reached back to the earlier versions for a farcical, burlesque spirit, which gave his production a sparkling, but often brutal energy. Chekhov’s original version contained all too much of this, and it got out of control in its first performance at Korsh’s Theatre in Moscow on November 19, 1887. Chekhov wrote the play in less than two weeks, and the Korsh, a first-rate company, threw the premiere together in four rehearsals. The role of Ivanov was played by Vladimir Davydov, who was famous as a comedian. While he recognized the original aspects of his character, he went much farther in the direction of broad comedy than Chekhov would have liked. In fact Chekhov and the mostly negative critics agreed on that point. He complained especially about how the actors in the third act “clown[ed] around and kick[ed] up their heels,” turning the scene into “a showbooth and a pothouse, horrifying me.” This is a perfect description of the Katona József production. We must assume that Chekhov would have been sorely displeased, unless he was softened by the company’s virtuosic abilities or Ernö Fekete’s multi-faceted and humane Ivanov. Chekhov assumed some of the blame for the excess of low comedy, and by the time his play had undergone a successful run at the Alexandra Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1889, much of it had been cut out. A refinement of the lead character went along with this, and it is worth noting that, when Davydov returned to the role at the Alexandra, he was not happy with the changes and tried to talk Chekhov into restoring his original version. In later years other actors agreed, and the first version of Ivanov did not disappear all at once.

That is not the only unusual feature of this production, however. You have probably read about how there prevails in Central Europe and Russia a certain nostalgia for the pop culture and design of the communist era, most vividly conjured up by the irresistible Ostel in Berlin and its furnishings, its merchandise. and its ever-growing cultural initiatives. It makes perfect sense to transport the action of Ivanov to another repressive state, in which human possibilities were severely limited: Communist Hungary of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Zsolt Khell’s brilliant set and props, Györgyi Szakács’s equally brilliant costumes rival the Ostel as a tableau vivant of life in the bad old days. However, this is not just a matter of decoration or nostalgia, it establishes the dramatic thrust of the production by recalling the times when theater companies could make potent statements through the classics, which could get through the state censors much more easily than new plays. Add to this the further layer of the present day. Would a well-educated, intelligent man of thirty-five be any less stuck today than he would have been in 1968, in 1887, or in 2009?

Zoltan Bezerédi (sitting) and Gábor Maté, (right) in "Ivanov" by Anton Chekhov. Photo Stephanie Berger

Zoltan Bezerédi (sitting) and Gábor Maté, (right) in “Ivanov” by Anton Chekhov. Photo Stephanie Berger

The various scenes unfold in a single, all-encompassing space delimited by bare poured concrete walls and illuminated by long banks of fluorescent tubes, as in some huge apartment block like the monsters they built back then. The vestibule is a flimsy wood and glass construction at the back. Beaten up pine panelling covers the lower part of the entrance wall to waist-height. A “no smoking” sign is stencilled directly on the concrete. A dingy yellow door conceals a stentorian toilet, which thunders forth periodically, as various characters make brief exits at opportune moments. It also punctuates the festivities chez Lebedev. The furniture could well be original, surely bound for a museum if Katona József is ever foolish enogh to let it go. There is a classic aluminum standing ashtray and a period beer keg of the same metal, which sees some effective action during the play. Costumes are perfect, from the men’s battered yellow and brown shoes, baggy grey and brown suits, to the women’s polyester floral dresses and the hideously clunky imitations of fashionable western shoes they wear on stage. They dowdy fashions of the more well-to-do ladies, Zhinaida and Marfa Babakina for example, are priceless, and make their social point with surgical perfection. Borkin won the fashion prize in the end, with a double-breasted electric blue suit, patterned mustard-yellow casual shirt, and white patent-leather moccasins. In this, the disreputable fellow was the life of the Lebedev’s party with his firecrackers and his seduction of the ugliest woman in the room. What is one to do, if there’s no vodka and nothing to eat?

Ervin Nagy as Misha Borkin in Chekchov's "Ivanov." Photo Stephanie Berger.

Ervin Nagy as Misha Borkin in Chekchov’s “Ivanov.” Photo Stephanie Berger.

Anodyne Italianate pop songs of the sort that circulated through airports in those days fail miserably to humanize this brutal environment. An out-of-tune piano at the back provides another inadequate source of music. All this could be a fine setting for a Central European version of a George Booth cartoon, but it is also the scene of the funniest play I’ve seen in years, an entertainment of coal-black, the blackest, most cynical possible humor. (At this point I should mention that I just heard glowing reports of a “straight” production at the National Theatre in Warsaw with some of the great names of the Polish stage, in which the laughs were confined to the business between Shabelsky and Marfa Babakina.) The thoroughly seasoned Katona József cast played together as tightly as a virtuoso chamber orchestra.

The first thing we see is Ivanov curled up in one of those communist-era chairs, most obviously not designed for the purpose, his shoulders and head twisted toward the floor. He could be sleeping or dead. Borkin, Ivanov’s relation and factor, enters, looking as if he’s just been out on the estate. He carries a rifle, as he enters Ivanov’s garden with a mixture of stealth and over-confidence. He is drunk. Ervin Nagy, who plays Borkin, is one of those actors who can arouse laughter by just standing on stage, doing nothing, but he is the master of incredible physical control, a born Punchinello, as he puts his large frame through a grotesque dance, as he enters. For fun, he points his rifle at various parts of Ivanov’s body, eventually causing him to stir. We realize that Ivanov has been reading a book spread out on the ground. Ernö Fekete, looking very much Ivanov’s stated age of thirty-five, has gone to seed a bit, but he hasn’t yet lost his good looks. He is an Ivanov of such wit and charm that his cruelest remarks and most selfish deeds slip easily away, in fact they are quite entertaining, and his nastiest abuse of his love-struck, randy wife, Anna Petrovna (née Sarah Abramson), who is dying of tuberculosis, makes us laugh. In this way we are entering into Ivanov’s world. He is so self-absorbed, that, while he can rant vaguely about his “terrible sin,” there is an absolute disconnect between his understanding of his failed relationship with Anna/Sarah and the local gossip, according to which he married the Jewess for her family’s money, which never came, because her parents, disgusted by her marriage to a gentile, the necessary conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church, and change of name, promptly disowned her. Anna observes that, although her parents live forty miles away, she can feel their hatred constantly. (What a modern idea!) For Ivanov his alienation from her is only the result of his incessant, incurable boredom and depression. Of course he is an inveterate taker and user, but it only occurred to me as a second thought that in real life such people are toxic and dangerous, but they can charm us, just as Ivanov does in his hour upon the stage, as well as the unfortunate Anna and her near-successor, Sasha, the daughter of Zhinaida, the money-lender to whom Ivanov owes a serious debt. The first version of the play failed because critics and the public found Ivanov thoroughly repulsive, and they required some moral judgement or retribution before they could be satisfied with their evening in the theatre. In his later revisions, Chekhov delved into Ivanov’s soul to make him more palatable. And in the Hungarians’ black world, the anti-hero is about as appealing as he could possibly be. Like Don Giovanni, he has an intelligence and vitality—in spite of his depression—the others lack.

Gábor Máté as Shabelsky and Ági Szirtes as Marfa Babakina in "Ivanov" by Anton Chekhov. Photo Stephanie Berger

Gábor Máté as Shabelsky and Ági Szirtes as Marfa Babakina in “Ivanov” by Anton Chekhov. Photo Stephanie Berger

Ildikó Tóth plays Anna most sympathetically, her enthusiasm for life and Ivanov are almost girlish, as death by consumption closes in on her. She can be irritating of course, and her insistence on coming along with him to the Lebedev soirée was entirely against his flirtation with Sasha, not to mention his need to escape in whatever way possible. Hence his outburst at the end of Act III, when he calls her a “Jew-bitch” and callously informs her that “she can’t last long,” [to uproarious laughter in the house] according to the attentive, disgustingly righteous, and rather stupid Dr. Lvov, vividly (if that’s the right word for such a stolid character) played by Zoltán Rajkai. As Lvov’s venom mounts, it appears to be as futile as the righteous indignation of the “good people” in Don Giovanni, and it only shores up our sympathy for his nemesis. Gábor Maté as Shabelsky and Zoltán Bezerédi as Pasha Lebedev offer unforgettable characterizations of two older gentlemen, one a bit of a scoundrel and the other a drunk who lives in the past. Their comic sensibility carries that undercurrent of pathos at which actors from east of the Rhine excel as no others. (Both are directors as well as actors, and Gábor Maté has been with the Katona Jószef since 1987. Zoltán Bezerédi came in 2002 after a career at the distinguished Kaposvár Company. ) Judith Csoma’s Zhinaida (Zuzu, as she is affectionately called) lives in a different world from her vodka-sodden, but sensitive and intellectual husband. She is stolid materialism personified, but she has an especially brilliant moment when Ivanov approaches her for an extension on his interest. She simply begins to cry, loudly and profusely, admonishing him that he shouldn’t do such a thing to a poor old woman. Marfa Babakina, played with an acid perkiness by Ági Szirtes, is by no means young, but her true attractions, her wealth, appear in her fashionable, but extremely unbecoming knit dress (white with black horizontal stripes) white high-heeled boots, huge white plastic earrings, and masculine short haircut. Her overriding desire is marriage with the seedy old count and his title, and she will suffer any indignity to get it.

Sasha was brilliantly played by Adél Jordán, who used her long, slim body and dry contralto with extraordinary elegance and expressiveness. As the ingénue she had the most limited access to the production’s black humor, but she gave her role plenty of spirit and zest, along with an emotional range which was both all-embracing and subtle. The pungent Hungarian vowels and her dusky voice made Sasha’s speech about “active love” in Act III (of which I did not understand a word except for what I read in the supertitles) sound like a long, gorgeous English horn solo. Sasha’s love for Ivanov is passionate and charming, if a trifle theoretical. Ms. Jordán and Mr. Fekete made for an impressive combination of theatrical genius.

The supertitles, by the way, were in especially idiomatic colloquial English, and I got the impression that they interfered with the text relatively little, although they were necessarily incomplete. It seemed as if 90% of the audience were Hungarian, hence the supertitles mattered little, except for non-Hungarian speakers like myself. At intermission everyone emerged with a smile on his or her face, albeit it a twisted one. Tamás Ascher’s multifarious and complex manipulation of our emotions through outrageous comic gestures, surprises, and the subtle acting of the company regulars was nowhere so apparent as at the pathetic moment in Act IV, when waltzes stagger out from the miserable Lebedev piano in preparation for Sasha and Ivanov’s wedding, and Shabelsky begins to cry. Ivanov has to coax an explanation out of him, as Sasha looks on: “The music reminds me of the Jewish girl. We used to play duets together.” (an approximate quotation of a supertitle which doesn’t match Chekhov’s text) The context is so inappropriate and Jordán and Fekete’s reaction so nicely expressed that I could not help laughing uncontrollably. Feeling a bit like a Charles Addams character, I looked around at the audience. About half were laughing and half crying. I observed this gradually change. The laughers began to cry and the weepers began to laugh, and I felt the transformation as well. From that point on we watched the conclusion of the play with a sobered vision. The scales had fallen from our eyes, and we watched in awe as Ivanov approached his checkmate. We are sorry to see the charming existential rogue go, but, as I exited, I wondered what poor Sasha’s future would be like, and it took me a while to realize that she’s a tough cookie in her way, and her future would not be so bad—certainly not as bad as if she had married Ivanov.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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