World Premiere at Denison Ranked with World's Best
Jon Farris as Ivan Ilych
Vasilios Yani Kouandarakis as Gerasim
You’re too late. If you weren’t at Ace Morgan Theater on the Denison University campus on Friday night, you’ve missed the opportunity to be present for the world premiere of a play by an internationally renowned playwright. Luckily, you’re not too late to see a performance if you act quickly, and I can’t urge you too strongly to call the box office for tickets. Be warned, however: though it has its humorous moments, this is a challenging evening of serious theater.
Donald Freed’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych is a striking piece of writing, enhanced by the work of a distinguished West Coast director, Dan Bonnell, and stage technicians, John Ore (lighting) and Brad Seteinmetz (scenic designer) with impeccable credentials – and by actors who can stand proudly with the best stage performers I’ve ever seen. While the play explores issues central to Tolstoy’s concern – the meaning (or perhaps more accurately the meaninglessness) of life (or of certain lives) and the inequities of class, Freed puts at its core the relationship between Ilych and his servant Gerasim, a relationship which he calls a remarkable love story.
The actors who play these two roles are, ironically, a well-known professional on the eve of retirement from his academic career and a young sophomore in his first role at Denison. I have not seen performances more genuine or more moving. Jon Farris, Professor of Theatre at Denison, we’ve had the opportunity to see in many roles both at Denison and in other venues, most often, for me at least, CATCO; but he is, as Freed said Friday night after the premiere, at the peak of his ability. On stage from the beginning of the play to the very end, he holds us spellbound the entire time. Incredible as it may seem, however, his young, almost totally inexperienced, colleague, Vasilios Yani Koumandarakis, partners him so splendidly it’s hard to say who is the most commanding performer. These two distinguish themselves even in an otherwise excellent cast.
The stage setting, though simple, is totally appropriate to the play and becomes richly complex through the use of projected backdrops that contribute to the drama’s relentless movement toward its destined end. Cynthia Turnbull, Chair of the DU Theater Department, designed the costumes, which are 19th century period dress, impeccably crafted, and to my eye, entirely authentic – even to the rear-opening cotton drawers worn by the title character.
This remarkable production is made possible by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which funds the Jonathan Reynolds (DU ’65) Playwriting Residency, bringing to the campus every other year a playwright in residence. This year’s event was enhanced as well by artists in residence under the auspices of the Vail Fund. Freed has suggested that the experience of working with his splendid crew is like working in a national theater. I can say from about 30 years of seeing plays in England’s National Theatre, that America (since, unfortunately, it has no national theater of its own) could drop this production – as is – into the repertoire on the South Bank of the Thames and expect it to feel right at home .