Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

December 04, 2008

Silvia Rieger in the Volksbühne cast of Ivanov
Photo: Thomas Aurin 2008

It’s been a rough 7th year for the UCLA International Theater Festival. Despite deserved praise heaped on this annual series by critic Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times last Sunday, the Festival, under the auspices of UCLA Live artistic director David Sefton, has been weaker than usual this fall. Though certainly not by design, the series started off with a cancellation due to a performer's visa problems, followed by undercooked Synge from the Druid Theater Company, overcooked effects from Robert LePage, and a dance piece masquerading as a theater piece.

So it is a huge relief that a hero has come to the rescue in the form of the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in a return engagement direct from Berlin. The troop was last here in 2003 with a mammoth adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, which is high on my list of favorite productions ever. So I approached this return engagement with a lot of excitement and will say that they do not disappoint, offering what is possibly the theater event of the year in Los Angeles. This time, the group has taken on another adaptation of a Russian classic, Chekhov’s early Ivanov, a tale of bourgeois inertia and ennui. (But isn't this really the story of all Western theater?) Directed by Dimiter Gottscheff, the production approaches the work as a bold comic satire of a decaying middle class. It is often funny in a very self-referential way that can be both physical, broad, and at times juvenile.

Make no mistake this is “Regietheater” at its best—the kind of approach that regularly sends opera audiences (and short-sighted critics) into apoplexy in a manner not dissimilar to the effect a buttless chaps-clad leather daddy has on a Proposition 8 supporter. While Gottscheff has not radically altered the plot or characters of the work, he has abandoned just about everything else. This minimal and aggressively modern look is far removed from the parlor pleasantries familiar to those who expect their Chekhov to look like a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel. Katrin Brack’s large empty white set has no props and is marked only by copious amounts of stage fog that pours out of the floor creating a huge wall throughout the entire uninterrupted two hours. Abetted by the superior lighting effects, the fog shifts, thickens and dissipates throughout, containing and at other moments commenting on the action.

Apparently this was also neither a cheap or easy effect requiring UCLA to change over from their regular AC units to some other manner of ventilation for the performance. It forces increased attention on the actors who give a set of amazingly good comic performances. Players preen, wheel, and at times careen off the stage. Much of the dialog is delivered by the cast while standing in a straight line facing the audience. And while this strategy is the death of many an opera production, in this minimalist approach, it underscores the alienation of the work's characters and works very, very well. Far from being boring, this Ivanov is full of life, wit, and is hard to look away from.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There are supertitles projected above the stage for the non-German speaking audience members. It is a shame that there are only a total of four more performances of Volksbüne's Ivanov left and I would highly recommend you catch one if you can before this is all too quickly gone.


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