Ensemble’s “Ivona” blackens the traditional comedy of the court

“Ivona, Princess of Burgundia” was recently performed this past weekend in LPAC’s Pearson-Hall Theater.
(Courtesy of Elèna Ruyter)

“Ivona, Princess of Burgundia,” taken in the abstract, seems to be a fairly straightforward aristocratic tragedy that continues in the vein of Shakespeare’s own masterworks. There is a prince who, in an act of simple childhood rebellion, decides to marry a woman who displease his parents. There is arguing, fighting and hand wringing about his choice. Also, murder by fish.

Last weekend, Professor of Theater Elizabeth Stevens and her Production Ensemble class performed “Ivona,” a play originally written by Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz, and was first published in the literary journal “Skamander” in 1938. The class performed the story in translation with a script by Krystyna Griffith-Jones & Catherine Robins.

The story of “Ivona” follows a relatively simple trajectory, and those concerned about spoilers should be wary of what follows. Gombrowicz himself provided a summary of the play, with Swarthmore production information added in paratheticals:

“Prince Philip (Josh McLucas ’15), heir to the throne, meets this charmless and unattractive girl as he goes for a walk: Ivona (Maddie Charne ’14/Sophia Naylor ’13) is awkward, apathetic, anaemic, shy, nervous and boring. From the start the prince cannot stand her; but at the same time, he cannot bear to see himself obliged to hate the wretched Ivona. He suddenly rebels against those laws of nature and gets engaged to Ivona.”

The two actresses that performed the eponymous maiden — alternating performance nights — took on the admirable task of acting as the ill-fated princess-to-be. Ivona is almost entirely mute, with her script consisting of only one or two monosyllabic utterances. Moreover, conveying emotion through the body is challening when the character is utterly limp; she must be dragged across the stage at points. As passive of a character as she is, Ivona’s mere presence elicits murderous rage in both the Prince and the King (Sasha Rojavin ’15), revealing their own internal demons and dark pasts.

After some discussion, the King and Chamberlain (Patrick Ross ’15) decide on a devious method of eliminating Ivona based entirely on her passivity — an subversively anticlimactic ending. They conclude that serving a bony fish, namely pike, will cause Ivona to choke, forever ending their moral turbidity and stress.

The production’s execution of this fateful dinner party is decidedly stunning. The entire cast squeezed into an open doorway located at the furthest end of the room, arranged around a table. Like a mock last supper, desirous faces gaze at the sprawled form of a seated Ivona, whose back remains turned toward the audience. One gets the impression of a tableau or oil painting from the immensity of empty space between the audience and the distant stage; the action is flattened into what seems inches deep. The comedy of the concluding murder is set cunningly detached from the audience, separated by both space and morality.

Performed in the Pearson-Hall theatre, tucked around the back of LPAC’s more traditionally arranged mainstage, “Ivona” exchanged the visual and dramaturgical benefits of an elevated stage for simple black walls, flat floors and proximal seating. Upon entering, the dimensions of “Ivona’s” scenery are striking. The set consisted of three high, wooden walls that tower above the audience, topped with dozens of mannequin heads. Like a courtroom constructed by Kafka, the featureless faces seem to stare down at the unfolding action on the set, passing judgment on entirely questionable and often despicable moral decisions. A closer look at the mennequins reveals the absurdity of “Ivona’s” black comedy — one of the mannequin’s wears a gas mask, the other a jester’s hat.

The genre of royal tragedies, which take their dramatic content from the machinations, scheming and gossip from an aristocrat’s court, drive the plot through acts of seeing and spying; think of Hamlet hiding behind an arras. The brilliance of “Ivona’s” space in Pearson-Hall is that is able to draw the audience into the dramatic action, spatially and emotionally, creating the unsettling feeling that they are complacent accomplices to a brutal crime. The walls are peppered with mirror-faced doors and when “Ivona’s” characters enter and exit, the audience is struck by an unsettling but extremely powerful sight — their own reflections watching back. Complicity is inescapable.

In the absence of an orchestra, “Ivona” manipulates expectations of traditional musical scores. Sound bridges, music played in the darkness of scene-changes, range from jazz to harsh and almost Gothic electronic selections. Upon the entrance of the King and Queen (Nina Serbedzija ’14), the royal flourish of trumpets erupts from an echoing and feedback-laden amplifier, held in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain.

Awkward laughter, the mark of excellent black humor dripping with subversion, is the sound that decidedly sets the score and serves best to describe the Ensemble’s performance.

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