According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Anton" by Aaron Riccio

Perhaps the scope and focus are too wide and the jumps between acts too abrupt; whatever the reason, Anton at times sounds like Chekhov, but lacks the passion of Chekhov.

A doctor suddenly switches careers and finds a passion not just for theater, but for classic and highly-stylized Chekhovian Theater. No, that’s not the plot of Anton (would that it were); that’s the story of actor-writer-director Pierre van der Spuy, who is clearly in love with the extremely influential world of Chekhov, but who has only managed at best to flatter the playwright’s original intentions and at worst to be so pale an imitation that Chekhov burns all the brighter.

I don’t mean to be insulting, since der Spuy has clearly put a lot of work into this, his third play. And there are some extremely polished moments (almost all of which are in the second half), filled with the classic undertones that silence speaks best and the naturalistic “let’s talk about something else when we really mean this” tonalities of Chekhov’s finest. In fact, der Spuy has written one of the best drunken scenes ever, between Anton and Dr. Altshuller; a bleak and tormented narrative that achieves the rapport between Vanya and Astarov, even if Anton’s climax is turgid and forced.

The problem here is that der Spuy has very little experience with the theater, and it shows not only in his own staid posture and impregnable voice (a heavily accented—not from any effort trying to speak Russian, mind you—and slurred baritone), but in his own sense of stagecraft and pacing. How can this man, for all his broad ideas and passion, hope to direct and lead a cast without understanding enough about the essential craft (and history) of theater first? I think der Spuy has the makings of a very fine playwright, and some of the cast (the first production I’ve seen where Equity Actors—specifically Loyita Chapel—have made a marked difference) handles the script with great care and respect for Chekhov. At the same time, there’s no consensus on how to pronounce even the most mundane of words, like “Moscow” (a pretty big word in a Russian play, you’ll have to admit), and even the Equity members sound like they’re hurtling over names like Evgenia Iakovlevna Chekhov. (I don’t blame them, but we go to see people do what we can’t do.)

Another complaint would be that Anton is almost excessively long, a problem easily solved by severely redacting the first act. While it’s no doubt interesting to see Olga struggling to fit into Anton’s family (and you can see the eerie parallels that der Spuy has either found or invented to Chekhov’s own work, particularly Uncle Vanya), Anton, which professes to be about Anton, gives far too much time and plot to the secondaries. This too would not be a problem if their stories actually went somewhere. But whereas The Cherry Orchard’s comic relief, Yepikhodov, fails at love to make a point about the play’s theme, Anton’s comic relief, Bunin (Lee Kaplan: amusing, but just a little too ready to jump in with his lines) just disappears at the end of Act II. The same goes for Olga who, after suddenly marrying Anton between Acts I and II and having a miscarriage between Acts II and III, disappears for good before Act IV. Perhaps the scope and focus are too wide and the jumps between acts too abrupt; whatever the reason, Anton at times sounds like Chekhov, but lacks the passion of Chekhov.

Vladimir Nabokov said it best: “Chekhov’s intellectual... [knows] exactly what is good, what is worthwhile living for, but at the same time [sinks] lower and lower in the mud of a humdrum existence, unhappy in love, hopelessly inefficient in everything—a good man who cannot make good.” Anton here is merely a shadow of himself, a success without real regrets (or perhaps ones that are too obliquely referenced in sub-text) or tragedy, despite his very real battle with consumption. (Here, it’s almost laughable: a few coughs here, a few coughs there, pass the vodka bottle, would you?) I look forward to seeing the inevitable second draft of this production (it’s too good a story not to tell, and der Spuy is really too motivated to forgo telling it); but right now, Anton is not even the shadow of the imitation it so longs to be.

Greenwich Street Theater (547 Greenwich Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00 General/$10.00 Students
Performances (to January 29th): Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00; Sunday at 3:00

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