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Theater Review:

Strawdog Theatre’s "IVONA, PRINCESS OF BURGUNDIA"

BY LUCIA MAURO

When Michael Dobbs as the vain Prince Phillip – in white- powder makeup and a distressed ruffled shirt and crushed-velvet jacket -- enters suavely puffing on a cigarette in a slender holder half-hidden behind a Technicolor cluster of foliage, certain primal qualities ooze from the mannered panache. This grotesquely paradoxical opening cuts to the quick of Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz’s caustic dramatic fairytale, "Ivona, Princess of Burgundia," receiving a blistering and sophisticated production by Strawdog Theatre Company.

Written in 1938, this classic absurdist work slyly reverses society’s ordered pretense when Gombrowicz’s bored and self-interested prince announces his engagement to a mute, unkempt and unattractive young peasant girl. Yet this silent figure, who possesses a fierce loyalty and purity of spirit, ultimately provokes the preening royals and their groveling minions to see their own unspoken sham. This realization leads to a violent act, which demonstrates the lengths to which humans will go to preserve the shallow rituals that quietly keep others in their proper place.

Aside from a long-winded second act that hammers home the play’s hypocritical point ad nauseum, "Ivona" is a brilliant study of the "Emperor Has No Clothes" phenomenon – only, this time, the rulers’ superficiality is revealed through the oblivious honesty of the immovable titular mute.

Director Kirsten Kelly’s giddily surreal production, with horrifyingly bleak undertones, transforms Gombrowicz’s cutting words into a hellish visual portrait of greed and self-preservation. Dobbs slithers his way through the cunning and sensual role of Prince Phillip, who commits the most abysmal act of villainy: using this wretched soul to exaggerate his superiority and "altruistic" sensibility. Phillip also uses Ivona (played with a mesmerizing centeredness by Stacy Parker) to rebel against his parents’ obsession with wealth, beauty and power – things he vigorously worships, too.

Jennifer Engstrom delivers one of the most electrifying performances as the faux-empathetic Queen Margaret, reminiscent of the psychotically envious queen in the Disney cartoon version of "Snow White." She is well-paired with Carm Crisolia as the bungling but dangerously warped King Ignatius – a lecherous old buffoon in a high wolfman-like wig, whose recollections of a brutal rape he carried out with Tim Curtis’ icily efficient Chamberlain unearth the dehumanizing horrors of this all-too-real fairytale.

As the perpetually unwanted butler, Checkers, James Anthony Zoccoli employs eerie slow-motion clown tactics that portend the gradual collapse of this plastic empire. Other searingly symbolic performances include Kyle Hamman as the prince’s morally confounded friend; Julie Daley as a once loyal lady-in-waiting seduced by power; and Anita Deely as Ivona’s ambitious aunt and an equally opportunistic lady of the court.

Kelly succeeds at bringing out the frightening realness of these characters within their exaggerated portrayals. And the designers create a world of nightmarish metaphors – from Michelle Caplan’s Eastern European fairyland touches, including a swan throne strewn with pelts, and Michelle Habeck’s glaring lighting to Lindsay Jones’ "Fractured Fairytale"-esque musical compositions and Rachel Healy’s slowly deteriorating costumes, whose frayed edges foreshadow the unfurling moral decay of these beastly beings.•

"Ivona, Princess of Burgundia" runs through October 26 at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: $15. Call 773-528-9696 or log onto www.strawdog.org.

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