In Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz's "Ivona, Princess of Burgundia," silence isn't golden, it's downright detestable.
Set in Europe in the recent past, "Ivona" is an absurdist fairy tale in which small talk is equated with decency and stillness is a capital offense.
Princess Ivona (Svetlana Tikhonov) is a pensive creature of sluggish blood and an even slower tongue. She unsettles the busybodies of one King Ignatius's court with her obstinate torpor, doing little but flop over furniture and stare off into the distance as the others prattle about what's wrong with her and beg her to speak. Even the talk of activity makes the poor wretch tired: When a young man offers the unhelpful advice to "Cheer up a little!" and begins bouncing around as he suggests that morning walks and games might enliven her, Ivona, who had been sitting on her knees, drops her head straight to the floor.
But the attention that Ivona's "arrogance and vinegar" attracts isn't all unfavorable. Though Prince Philip (Christopher Henley), heir to Ignatius's throne, initially agrees with his family and friends that Ivona is a "universal irritant," he also finds her curiously appealing and impetuously proposes marriage: "The balance is perfect -- I am a prince, and she is a proud and affronted queen!"
As the discomfort that Ivona inspires in Philip's confidants -- including his fatuous parents, Ignatius (Allan Jirikowic) and Margaret (Christine Herzog), friends Simon (Ryan McGrath) and Cyprian (Jay Hardee), and various dignitaries and ladies of the court -- morphs into hatred, "Ivona" becomes a morality play about the potential ugliness lurking under the appearance of propriety.
In contrast to all of "Ivona's" talk of dullness, Scena Theatre's production pops off the stage. Alisa Mandel's costumes, predominantly black and white with accents of silver and red, are unexpected combinations of various time periods: Some of the women are wrapped in tulle and fishnet with the look of flappers, for example, while Simon and Cyprian wear baseball caps and ties with their otherwise jesterlike outfits. Ivona's separateness, meanwhile, is accentuated by a dress of white gauze and rope that resembles a Greek column.
Director Robert McNamara (also Scena's artistic director) nicely highlights "Ivona's" absurdism with touches that include a giant stuffed pike at a royal dinner and characters of significant girth who "hide" behind tiny ottomans. And though the entire 13-member cast handles Gombrowicz's humor skillfully, Henley (who last showed his comedic talents in Washington Shakespeare Company's "Waiting for Godot") and McGrath are standouts, the latter getting great mileage out his slapsticky supporting role.
Act 1 moves along briskly. Gombrowicz's script falters in its second half, however, with long soliloquies about various characters' desire to destroy the princess -- whose quiet eventually suggests strength and intelligence -- as well as a nonsensical subplot that involves an apparently sinister connection between Ivona's personality and Margaret's poetry. And although "Ivona's" ending seems abrupt, it's actually merely succinct -- a rather appropriate finish to a play that condemns blather.
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, by Witold Gombrowicz. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, Konstantin Tikhonov; costumes, Alisa Mandel; lighting, Lynn Joslin; sound, David Crandall. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 3 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990.