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Royal Pain: The Tragedy of Ivan VI

Review by Alice Greenwald, PhD.

Historical drama – more than likely thanks to The Crown – has become a marketable item on television and film but good ones on stage have not taken hold yet. A plausible hypothesis is that these dramas need a heavy dose of fill-in-the-blanks for all those closed door and lost years sequences. Something the cinema can do quickly that takes a budget to do for live performance. But the current entry in at category might change that.

Jan Ewing’s dark and racy IVAN VI takes on the story of tragedy of power corrupting even the most innocent – the grandson of Ivan V, Peter the Great’s older brother, crowned, anointed and deified at the age of two-months, he was then forcibly removed by his cousin, Elizabeth, at fifteen months, and thrown into prison. The play opens in 1764 when Tsar Ivan VI is 24 years old. Alone in a cell for 20 years, his only companions are two guards – one a sadistic commander and the other who has deep and conflicting feelings toward the young innocent boy. He is also haunted by two spirits acting as his conscience. Are they just figments of his imagination or are they two creatures trapped between earth and hell forced to watch the painful proceedings. Outside his cloister, as one might imagine, there are increased rumblings among the people that Ivan should be placed back on the throne and revolution is in the air.

Ewing created an engrossing script and a lavish virtual production complete with music, precision and fascinating edits and cutaways, and quick – almost subliminal narration. Ironically, the extent of effects the show requests is not much faraway from the zoom version, making it highly marketable for regional, showcase, as well as NYC professional. Ewing handed us rich expansive dialogue that reads like a classic 19th century melodrama with ample supplies of sex and violence. This is not a condemnation as his choices were honest and completely necessary. Ewing served as director as well, making sure the cast lives up to his work … and they did.

Patrick Hamilton, and Gabriele Angieri set the pace as guards condemned to watch over the boy-now-man basically for the rest of his life. Hamilton allows a softness even in his aggressive words, giving us a seek peek to an inspired twist supplied by Ewing regarding Ivan; while Angieri’s presence stepped though the screen to give us a hardened soldier getting tired of loving his country and his rulers. Another formidable pair were Kristyn Koczur and Steven Mark Singer as the two tortured spirits keeping Ivan company. Playing it like a noir Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, these affected specters served as de facto narration and exposition while haunting the titular Ivan. It’s a rare trick to make us laugh and cringe – Koczur and Singer did this admirably. Their natures gave us a chance to wonder whether they were specters or hallucinations from the jailed Ivan.

And speaking of the baby tsar of Russia, Matthew Tiemstra, ran the gamut of emotions and feelings during this relativity short (for an historical drama) play. Crying, laughing, yearning, hating, lucid, dream-like, convulsing, heaving, hoping, praying, living and the other thing, were served up to the audience by this exquisite actor. One can imagine – when this play takes on a live run – Tiemstra should reprise his role.

Zoom serves a noble purpose in awakening audiences to quality works such as Ivan VI for free or cheaply. Many companies will sadly abandon this unique opportunity so we’d better grab the gold while we can.

Ivan VI by Jan Ewing is now being solicited for a full run or cinematic presentation. Here’s hoping it happens.

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