Gary Carr/ Ivan the Terrible at the Circus: a Theatre Review

Septic Theatre Company presented the much anticipated West Coast premiere of Anton Chekhov’s Ivan the Terrible at the Circus last night at the Polydrome. Septic deserves praise for mounting a production of this early work by the Russian master.  Rarely performed today, the play saw its last staging in Berlin in the 1950s, with Gert Frobe in the title role.

Using an updated translation by Josef von Sternberg, director Miles Rococo leans heavily on Chekhov’s sonorous phrasing and sharp characterizations.  The action flows seamlessly from throne room to frozen steppes to cathedral to circus to Grand Hall, thanks to the clever multi-level set by Irina Irrector and video projections by Dziga Vertov.

Louis Deriguer is captivating as both the young Ivan and the older “terrible” czar, achieving the change in age and stature by donning stilts and speaking through a kazoo.  In last season’s production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, the versatile De Rigueur thrilled Septic audiences with his portrayal of all three women.

In the famous throne room scene, Deriguer, as young Ivan, is properly guileless, but a bit too sniveling for my taste, when he meets his adversaries, the Boyar princes.   His nemesis and stepmother, Annapurna, played with menacing glee by Candy Mae Moffatt, stations herself in a curtained booth behind the throne and whispers the commands she wishes Ivan to give to the Boyars. 

In the Septic Theatre production, Rococo substitutes a life-size marionette of Ivan for actor Deriguer.  He has Annapurna “pull the strings” as a metaphor for her attempts to control the young czar and replace him with her own son, Perfidious (Burton “Froggy” Frazier.)  The theatrical effect is pure Chekhov, and judging by audience reaction, a highlight of the show.

 Unfortunately, on opening night, Ivan-the-Puppet’s fur-rimmed crown kept slipping off his head and had to be repeatedly retrieved by a stagehand.

Rococo catches the essence of the classic Chekhovian action sequence in his staging of the troika race between Ivan and Perfidious across the frozen steppes and into the center ring of the Moscow Circus. Along the way, Annapurna falls from her son’s sled and is eaten by a pack of ravenous serfs, an image Chekhov would revisit in the sequel, Uncle Vanya.

Ivan wins the race by six lengths and enters the circus to a cheering crowd, played by Dr. and Mrs. Irving Rothman and their sons, Brian and Brandon.  Once inside, Perfidious doffs his fur wrap to reveal his ringmaster’s uniform, all in pale blue and teal by costumer Marcel de Vie.

As Ivan sits in the royal box, Perfidious brings on a series of circus acts, hoping to distract Ivan while food vendors offer him poisoned refreshments – borscht, petrushkas, and those little pancakes filled with cottage cheese – all of which Ivan refuses.

Ivan watches clowns, sword-swallowers, and a flock of trained seagulls.  He turns away a flagon of wine as a giant papier-mâché woman enters for one of Chekhov’s favorite divertissements, Mussorgsky’s “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells” (“Балет невылупившихся птенцов.”)  

The giant woman lifts her skirts, and out run he egg/chicks, played by students from Miss Tammy’s School of Tap, Toe, and Tai-Chi. I detected a definite homage to Bob Fosse’s Chicago dance work in Miss Tammy’s choreography.  Unfortunately, my view of the stage was quickly obscured by parents in front of me leaping to their feet to take their children’s pictures with their cell phones.  At this point, Miss Tammy passed me a note suggesting we have an after-show supper. 

Foiled for the moment, Perfidious invites Ivan to the after-party at the Grand Hall of his ancestral home, “Sans Sous-Vêtements.”  Inside the Grand Hall (designer Irrector’s vision of a medieval Starbuck’s) Ivan and his retainers, played by students from Miss Tammy’s adult swing-dance class, are set upon by Perfidious and the Boyars.  After a furious battle, reminiscent of the Sharks and Jets rumble from West Side Story, Ivan emerges victorious.  The Boyars are dispatched to a man and Ivan drowns Perfidious in the large vat of caramel latte. 

The curtain comes down to the strains of Miss Tammy’s children’s chorus singing the 16th century Russian anthem, “God Save Our Reasonably Mighty Czar.”

Granted, the early work of Chekhov is difficult to stage, in no small part because of the numerous action sequences and the need to plumb the hidden depths of the characters.  With Ivan the Terrible at the Circus, Septic Theatre Company has done a credible job.  Three and one-half stars.  And a five-star dinner with Miss Tammy. 


Gary Carr is a playwright, author, and publicist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  His published work includes The Left Side of Paradise: The Screenwriting of John Howard Lawson, The Girl Who Founded Nebraska and other stories, and the play Jenny Gets Her Wheels On.  He has worked as a busboy, truck driver, and university professor.

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