Ivan the Drunk and his Terrible Tale of Woe – Theater Review


I had the pleasure of seeing “Ivan the Drunk and his Terrible Tale of Woe” on Saturday.  If it isn’t yet June 21st 2009, you haven’t missed it yet.  You should go.

The set is beautiful and cleverly transforms into layer upon layer of dream-like sequences and settings that Ivan recalls from life and returns to in his memory.  The memories are surreal – it’s not a strictly linear play – and the interaction between the music, setting, and acting/dancing are evocative of intense emotion, often with no words for minutes at a time.  Some of the scenes are nightmarish; but it is always clear that they are based on events from his life.  At no time does it seem completely random – the action is grounded in a reality, even though we as audience members only have a minimal sense of the reality, it’s clearly there.

There are light hearted moments, too, as Ivan talks to his burden, which he quite literally carries around with him.  The physicality of Paul Herwig leaves no doubt from the very opening moments that this burden is taxing.  I wondered, though, whether he would be able to share his burden with someone else if he would allow it.  He wouldn’t allow it, and thus we saw several examples of his loved ones being shut out of his life.  This is painful to watch, as it is a depiction of an emotion that many of us have felt – perhaps it is a universal emotion – of not being trusted with someone else’s pain.  The other performers, every one seamlessly controlled yet fluid and accessable, each have moments of physically embodying the hardships of enduring Ivan’s distrust.

I don’t even have a word for that kind of rejection – the pain that accompanies the knowledge that a loved one would rather choose to carry their burden alone, whether it be alcoholism, drug dependency, post-traumatic stress, mental illness, or any number of other sadnesses.  That kind of rejection doesn’t get talked about much in our society – and here is a play that articulates it beautifully – subtly, the other characters throw bruised look and a walk away – Ivan watches in horror as he realizes he has shut another loved one out – but unable to do anything but hang onto his burden for dear life.

And you get the sense that life is dear to him – even after all of his struggles in the war, after nearly being killed, after killing (in more ways than one), he wants to live.  He seems to wish for things to have been different – in one of his memories, he alienates one family member, and then has a memory-do-over and tries again, only to alienate another family member – and so on.  He can’t get it right, because he can’t rewrite his memories into falsehoods.  So we see the pain and hurt and degradation.

All the while, though, there is a sense of healing, too.  Perhaps it’s in the very beauty of the movement, the imagry, the music – but one gets the sense that Ivan does have a poetic soul.  You wouldn’t know it from his ‘tchotchkes,’ his baudy little soldier rhymes, but he must have, if the events in this play are going on in his mind.  The reasons for his pain, the contents of his burden, are slowly unpacked for the audience to see and feel – we get both sides of the rejection and pain, and realize that as personal as the rejection is for the other characters, it is a double-edge sword that hurts Ivan as much as them.

The play has no breaks – no intermissions or even black-outs, and Ivan is on stage the whole time.  There is physical and verbal comic relief, but it is closely tied to the tragedy, and by the end, as an audience member, I was physically tired just from watching and paying as much attention as I could.  In empathizing with Ivan, I had a sense of relief and anxiety for him as he approached the final scene.  I was glad to see how the resolution of the final minutes was uncompromising in maintaining Ivan’s reality, yet found a way to articulate joy and beauty in the process of life, even a tragicomic life such as Ivan’s.

In the end, I felt spent and sated – I felt trusted as an audience member to understand and interpret the action in my own way, and, surprisingly, I felt closer to some parts of my own life that have been difficult for me to process in the past.  Something shifted in my own way of thinking about rejections that I have experienced and family members whom I have not understood – maybe some room for compassion has opened up where there was only pain and rejection before.  Regardless of my personal emotional reaction to this play, I feel I can confidently say that it touches a deep chord of humanity and will give you a lot to consider, whether you have direct experience with someone like Ivan in your life or not.

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