The Evidence Room Is Back

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

All of my favorite Chekhov productions have been done by ensemble theaters. There's something about Chekhov's plays that demand ensemble. It's not just that Chekhov writes such wonderfully large, detailed casts. He writes about people with history. Like old friends or families, the relationships are about more than what's happening in the moment: it's about the moment and all the baggage these people drag into that moment. While a talented group of strangers can stage Chekhov, I've found it's companies with a little history, a little baggage, that really bring Chekhov to life.

Take the Evidence Room's quirky production of Ivanov at the Odyssey Theater.

On the surface, Ivanov is the story of a man behind on his mortgage who'd rather think than work. Ivanov can't find a way to pay his bills and, seemingly worse, his wife is dying of consumption. His only hope of refinancing his life depends on the daughter of his biggest creditor. She's young, beautiful and madly in love with him. What's Ivanov to do?

That's the question at the center of Chekhov's earliest play. It's also the trap that dooms most productions of Ivanov - they try and make sense of Ivanov the man rather than Ivanov the play. Sometimes called Chekhov's Hamlet, Ivanov is often staged to answer the mystery - 'why does Ivanov do what he does.'

Candidly, Ivanov is no Hamlet. It's the first full length play Chekhov wrote and it can be a bit of a melodramatic mess which is why it's so rarely produced. Fortunately, director Bart DeLorenzo and actor Barry Del Sherman, who plays Ivanov, leave the character a bit of an enigma.

Instead, Mr. DeLorenzo draws on his wonderful ensemble of actors to bring the eccentric world of Ivanov to life. Part of the joy of the play is discovering a piece of history. For lovers of Chekhov, it's a bit like seeing the 'prequel' to The Cherry Orchard: they owe money but there's still a chance of saving everything; the good old doctor is still young and hasn't given up hope. You can see all puzzle pieces that will form Chekhov's great plays they just haven't come together yet.

For fans of the Evidence Room, there's a joy in seeing familiar faces in a new world. Here's where the benefits of ensemble and history really pay off. The core of this production are Evidence Room regulars and you can feel an ease and familiarity among the actors. It's like watching old friends joke or a family fight: even if you don't know the back story you can sense there is one.

And this connection doesn't stop with the actors. Mr. DeLorenzo has always surrounded himself with wonderful designers and Ivanov is no exception. What's magical is how he gets his designers to play together. Sound designer John Zalewski and lighting designer Michael Gend work together to create a powerful punctuation for the end of each act.

This is Bart DeLorenzo and the Evidence Room at their best. Don't miss this chance to peer into Chekhov's past and the Evidence Room's future.

Ivanov plays at the Odyssey Theater in West LA through June 16.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

(Note: This commentary originally aired as a web exclusive on May 1, 2012.)

Banner image: Barry Del Sherman in the Evidence Room's production of Ivanov at the Odyssey Theater. Photo by Enci