Totally Doin’ It with Art and Emily: Ivan the Drunk

Ivan the Drunk and His Terrible Tale of Woe is the latest original production by Off-Leash Area with words by Max Sparber. It’s playing at Open Eye Figure Theatre in South Minneapolis Thursday-Sunday through June 20. All shows are at 8:00 p.m. Reserve tickets by calling (612) 724-7372.


Art’s Part

For being such a dark, sober (heh) story, Ivan the Drunk does not take itself too seriously. Which is to say it took itself just seriously enough. I’ve seen reviews that use phrases like “full of laughs” or other euphemisms for funny, and that’s not it, exactly. There are a few truly absurdly funny moments—and you should not feel guilty about laughing at them—but this play isn’t funny.

I think the best word I could use to describe this play is “detached.” I mean this in a genuinely positive way. I mean it in the same way people who are “dispassionate” about things mean it. Not wrong or aloof or uncaring, but deliberate and thoughtful.

This is also not to say that the play is not incredibly engaging or, indeed, passionate. I found myself right there with Ivan the whole way, if not entirely understanding his burden. (Although, his Burden is physically manifested and a genius device. I loved this aspect of the production.)

The actor who played Ivan, Paul Herwig, carried the role exceptionally well. For the entire hour and a half, all I wanted was to see more of his character. And I was sitting in the front row—three feet from the man. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to see someone that close that much. (Except, of course, for Emily.)

My enthusiasm is not unqualified. There was one point in the production that was so over the top that I just wanted to tell them to shut up and get along with it already. When Ivan confronts his demons (at least, I think that’s what it was), they were, perhaps, just the right level of abstract, but just the wrong level of screechy and unnecessarily obnoxious. This may have been magnified by the fact that I was in the front row and they were three feet from me. That, and the ending. I have three words for the ending, and the first two are W and T. Can you guess the third?

On the matter of the costumes, they were all very well done as far as I could tell. BUT, what astounded and fantastically impressed me was the false moustache technology employed. Ivan writhes and wrestles with his Burden (which also impressed me), and for the first ten minutes I was staring at that false moustache, just waiting for him to pull a Jim Carrey-on-SNL-esque moustache reaffixing, but there was none. His moustache stayed firmly secured to his upper lip for the entire performance, refusing to be dislodged even by the sweat that began to drip down Ivan’s face.


Emily’s Part

Half out of wanting to watch it with an open mind and half out of sheer laziness, I went to Ivan the Drunk knowing nothing about it except that it was a play by Max Sparber.

And, as it turned out, even that’s not entirely true.

First of all, I think it was more of a play/ballet hybrid; there are entire scenes without dialogue, completely expressed through dance and movement, interspersed with more dialogue-heavy scenes.

Another surprise for me was the level of collaboration in the creation of the piece. I assumed it had been written by Sparber, handed to the theater company, rehearsed, and performed. Instead, the story, which was conceived by Paul Herwig, Co-Artistic Director of Off-Leash Area, and the rest of the company, came before the words, which were written by Sparber, and they developed what became the final production together.

After the show, Sparber and Herwig told us that this collaboration, along with the busy schedules of everyone involved, made creating Ivan the Drunk a sometimes painful process, but I think the end result was more than worth it.

Herwig gives a compelling performance as Ivan, a tortured Russian WWI veteran, playing the character at different ages and wildly varying psychological states as the story jumps through space and time to different formative moments in Ivan’s life.

Ivan spends as much time talking to Burden, a life-sized dummy stuffed with artifacts of his past, as he does interacting with other characters, and I thought this, especially his physical interactions with Burden (they have a fight in the first scene, which I can’t imagine was easy to choreograph or pull off without seeming ridiculous), was surprisingly exciting to watch.

Now, as happens a lot with me and art (and Art, for that matter), I’m not sure I really “got” all of it. Things sometimes got a bit abstract for me, especially the ending, which I’m sure had some sort of profound meaning that I missed out on. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, and it got me thinking about the veteran’s experience, which I believe was at least in part, the play’s intention.

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