Any cursory examination of history proves beyond argument that one of our primary concerns is finding new and inventive ways of blowing shit—and each other—up. It's (part of) what we do. And about a century ago, the prevailing fashion in destruction was trench warfare, which involved digging long holes in the ground, lobbing projectiles and explosives at one's opponent, and essentially entering into a competition to see who could die last.
Soldier of misfortune: Ivan (Paul Herwig) and his "burden"
IVAN THE DRUNK AND HIS TERRIBLE TALE OF WOE Off-Leash Area at Open Eye Figure Theatre through June 20
It was not a recipe for long-term health and mental stability for those who took part, a point made abundantly clear in Off-Leash Area's strange and demanding Ivan the Drunk, which plots the worldly and metaphysical travails of a Russian war veteran shattered by his experience and memory.
The action opens with Ivan (Paul Herwig) on the ground, laboriously gasping for breath. On his back is a stuffed, human-sized figure he calls his burden, an off-putting thing he alternately cajoles, excoriates, and lavishes with dirty poems. Max Sparber provides the text, lending Herwig ample room in which to portray a raving wreck of a man, wandering a landscape both metaphorical and literal, the hollowed-out soul of a particularly brutal and violent century.
Are we having fun yet? Not really. But Herwig mightily earns our sympathy, even if it's pained. Ivan curses death itself, then sets out through his blasted country. (Herwig designed the set, a marvel of handmade oddity; when Ivan roams the land, it's against a spooling painted backdrop that evokes a touching sense of ruin.) When he returns home, his bonhomie quickly dissolves into snarling, drunken rage.
So it dawns on us that, if this is to be a story of redemption, we are going to arrive at it circuitously. The show clocks in at 90 minutes without an intermission, which turns out to be a winning strategy. Ivan's existence becomes such a painful grind that we need to embrace it whole, let it wash over us, and any break would raise the uncomfortable question of whether we would choose to return.
Ivan's memory drifts back and forth through time. We witness him committing a rape, executing a fellow soldier, and losing his humanity back in the trenches. (Karla Grotting, Judith Howard, Jennifer Ilse, and Kym Longhi play a variety of largely unnamed supporting roles, with Ilse co-directing with Herwig.) We also see him young and in love, before the war, although we're soon to understand that combat converted him into a creature incapable of affection.
It's a thoroughly Russian story, it turns out, with Slavic enthusiasm for libation, pessimistic theology, grinding circumstances, and mordant humor. Ivan's main enthusiasm, other than vodka, turns out to be for his burden, which he drags around with increasing fatigue (the metaphor is sturdy, if obvious, with Ivan's broken frame of reference all that keeps him together, albeit in a state of perpetual desperation).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this show is its complex compassion, the way in which Ivan's hopelessness is embraced with unstinting clarity. Ilse contributes elements of choreography that lend a welcome air of otherworldliness, not least in two concluding segments in which Ivan witnesses his own ill-starred birth, then slips into a hallucinogenic realm of Orthodox iconography that might well be worth the price of admission alone.
To say that the journey there is heavy and hard is an understatement. Ivan evokes moods aplenty, all of them tainted with bitterness and a sense of the horror we routinely inflict on ourselves, and those of other tribes. The beauty, when it comes, is so strange that we struggle to identify ourselves within it. It's life and history, undeniable and awfully jaundiced.