by Sarah McCarthy
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is a play that masterfully combines the beautiful and the ugly—while it is visually stunning in terms of its set and costumes, its plot centers around nothing but the ugliest parts of human nature. It is well-paced, well-acted and well-directed, and though there is hardly a single laugh during its two hour run, it still manages to be entertaining as well as thought provoking.
The play, advertised as a “grotesque fairy tale,” tells the story of Prince Philip (excellently played by Rohan Flinn) who, to his parents’ horror, decides to marry Ivona, an ugly common girl for whom he feels nothing but hatred. Ivona hardly ever speaks and generally does nothing but stare ahead as the members of the court harass and mock her, trying to force her to be less repulsive to them. When she does not acquiesce to their wishes, Prince Philip and his mother and father, King Ignatius and Queen Margaret (Keagan Buchanan and Caroline Leader) all independently plot to kill her. The King’s plan is put into action, and, just as he desired, Ivona chokes to death on a fish bone at his grand banquet.
The plot is, in and of itself, little but ridiculous, and it’s thus that the numerous extra touches brought to this production that make the absurd world of the play come to life. For one thing, Ivona is played by five different actresses (Megan Duffy, Cadence Ellington, Seren Pendleton-Knoll, Sarah Hathaway, and Roberta Gannett). Every times she appears, she is played by a different person, a fact that the audience is instantly aware of but that those in the play fail to notice at all. This clever choice drives home the point that Ivona becomes nothing more than a blank slate upon which the viewer projects his or her own impressions of what she is.
Likewise, rather than taking the obvious choice and making up the Ivonas to be as garishly ugly as they are described, her “ugliness” is conveyed only in that she does not have the white face makeup that all the other actors do. To the audience, Ivona is actually the only person on the stage that looks remotely natural. It becomes clear throughout the play that Ivona appears so ugly to the other characters only because her refusal to be like them makes them act in ugly and malicious ways.
The play is full of more absurdities than just these large ones. The king, for instance, does an excellent job of making a decidedly canine-like sound whenever displeased. When he pleases the queen, he gets rewarded by a little tasty treat. The ladies in waiting flip their handkerchiefs as a sign of agreement, and though at the end Ivona has her murder practically explained to her, she still chokes upon the fish bone just as the royalty had planned.
Roberta Gannett does a disturbingly good job of choking to death, and her character in death has not quite let go her mysterious hold on the royalty-at the end, the prince, the king, and the queen all kneel as her dead body lies on the banquet table. The absurdist elements of the play make clear that it is, in many ways, a fantasy and a fairy tale in a world far from our own.
The disturbing messages about the potential for human cruelty when faced with someone who challenges us hold definite relevance in the real world, even if it’s a message that isn’t particularly fun to hear.