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    So few rubles, so little time

    The fledgling Backyard Theater Company does a lot with a little, in a production of Chekhov's troublesome "Ivanov" marked by crisp direction, outstanding performances and skillful design.


    There is a classic experience familiar to many who've made a life somewhere in New York theater: a bunch of actors meet in a class of some kind, where they develop bonds of friendship and romantic enthusiasm before sallying forth to bring more under-funded, under-attended theater to the world (what's left of it) of Off-Off-Broadway. A new company is launched with momentous gusto — the kind it takes to organize the schedules of twenty-odd people for a limited rehearsal process of a difficult play written by one of the world's great playwrights.

    Written by: Anton Chekhov.
    Directed by: David Bridel.
    Cast: Matt Wall, Donald Kimmel, Deb Martin, Pete Barker, Keegan DeWitt, Molly Helfet, Mary Blue, Patricia Hart, Mark Cosby, George Kimmel, Mae Gibson, Meret Oppenheim, Stephen Ott, James Kroener, Zan Carter, Fred Urfer.
    Sound design by: Walter Trarbach.
    Set design by: Blair Mielnik.
    Costumes by: Tchera Niyego.
    Assistant director: Paula Jon DeRose.
    Technical director: Ray Harold.
    Stage manager: Amy Golden.
    Lighting: Bradley Thompson.
    Graphic design: Kathleen Provitola.
    Costume coordinator: Kaye Gibson.
    American Theatre of Actors
    314 West 54th Street
    Nov. 1-8, 2003

    A production of Chekhov, no matter how enthusiastic, can, under the exigencies of showcase theater, prove excruciating, leaving about everyone involved- down to the audience- feeling a bit closer to one of the writer's beaten young men who pursue, in one way or another, the bullet. And yet, there on the stage at the American Theatre of Actors, a unit of tiny theaters about as slipshod and decrepit as they come, runs "Ivanov," directed by David Bridel, presented by the nascent Backyard Theater Company.

    Despite the odds, this director has successfully piloted this group (many of whom, it seems by the program, he taught) in serving his audience a sharp, moving delivery of David Hare's robust adaptation. Bridel's focus is where it ought to be: on the text and the actors. The triumph here is that these performers know their characters, understand ensemble play and the importance of pace.

    Rare is the opportunity to hear "Ivanov" — Chekhov's first full-length, considered by many to be a "problem play," with characters and structure showing only hints of the deeper, more conflicting colors and turns that appear in the author's masterpieces that followed. This may have truth in it, but nonetheless, Ivanov is a powerful work loaded with moving, if sometimes redundant, scenes.

    The cast is led by a core of extremely capable actors. Suffering Nikolai Ivanov is played by actor Matthew Wall, whose bio in the program is surprisingly — though temporarily, I'd expect — sparse. Mr. Wall exhibits terrific command of his strange, soft charisma — suggesting the kind of depth and mystery (even in silence) any playwright with a character too tortured for words would kill for. His scenes with Lebedev (George Kimmel) in the second act of this production are particularly grueling. These two performers deliver thrashing scenes in which Lebedev's tenuous optimism crumbles before the miserable eloquence of Nikolai's bleak soul. These are restrained, wonderful performances, fittingly leaving one actor down, as dead on the stage, and the other slumped weeping in a chair.

    Fresh-faced Mae Gibson does well with a naively hopeful Sasha, and Donald Kimmel (Borkin) injects a crucial dose of liveliness, carrying a scene or three with energetic, even slapstick humor (no easy task at ATA, where a fall on the stage has people wondering if the walls might collapse).

    As expected, the talent level varies in the cast as a whole, but Bridel gets everything the play needs out of each of them. There is not one "weak link" in this performance. In a cast of so many links, that is highly impressive, and a credit to both director and players.

    The designers are similarly successful in self-effacing effectiveness. Blair Mielnik has created a visually pleasing acting space, which somehow never feels cramped, even with some dozen characters on stage at once. Bradley Thompson's lighting design does what it's supposed to do: light the actors and suggest the time of day. Tchera Niyego and Kaye Gibson provide costumes many and fitting. It is sound designer Walter Trarbach, though, who deserves an extra nod. There's nothing like a clumsy off-stage sound effect that can ruin a Chekhov play, and being that most theater spaces at this level lack even wing space, this responsibility falls on the sound designer's touch with electronics. An errant gunshot or firework has taken the wind out of many a moment, but not here. The owl sounds like an owl, and screeches on cue.

    No doubt these actors would only grow further and further into their roles if given time, but this production ran only one week, as many showcases do. Sustaining a run for much longer, with sixteen cast members and theater rentals as pricey as they are, isn't easy. Not enough time, not enough rubles. "Perhaps in Utopia," says the Count in Act One. "But I doubt it."

    NOVEMBER 10, 2003

    Reader comments on Ivanov:

  • Go for it matt!   from Matthew Wall, Feb 7, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Kaye, Nov 24, 2004
  • [no subject]   from , Dec 18, 2004

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