“Anton” is a new play by Pierre van der Spuy that explores the life of one of the world’s greatest playwrights, Anton Chekhov. Using all sorts of sources--including actual letters between Chekhov and his wife and leading actress Olga Knipper--van der Spuy’s work depicts Chekhov’s difficult relationships with the women in his life and his ongoing conflict between work and familial responsibilities.
The central concept of van der Spuy’s play is interesting, indeed. However, there are numerous problems with this production. To begin with, Mr. van der Spuy has little theater training and/or experience. Before his acting debut in May 2005, Mr. van der Spuy was a strategic management consultant and, before that, a doctor with clinical experience in South Africa, Canada and England. Mr van der Spuy’s academic background is impressive; however, when it comes to creating theater, medical accomplishments and academic studies hold no currency.
Mr. van der Spuy is much too academic in his approach. His attempt to make his script Chekhovian is painfully self-conscious. Moreover, the script is clunky and, at times, feels too modern for the time period in which it is set. As an actor, van der Spuy has some raw talent in that he seems at ease on stage and has a substantive stage presence. However, his lack of training and experience is glaring. It is difficult to understand van der Spuy due to a thick accent and poor enunciation, and he fails to make any physical or emotional choices whatsoever.
As the title character and star of this production, van der Spuy is a one-note-nancy, failing to infuse his character with inner struggle, emotional drive and passion. At one point, Anton catches Olga (Ana Kearin Genske) reading his will behind his back. A moment that should have been filled with personal tragedy and feelings of betrayal was, instead, marked with unlikely calm. In Act II, Anton at last has an emotional outburst in a confrontation between himself, his mother (Loyita Chapel) and Dr. Isaak Altshuller (Kent Langloss). However, there was no character growth or movement leading up to this moment, making the outburst difficult to believe. Mr. van der Spuy’s monotonous portrayal might be explained by one of Dr. Altshuller’s lines. He says: “What’s behind your mask, Anton? Even when you’re drunk you don’t give anything away.” In his attempt to characterize Anton as a man who does not readily show his emotions, Mr. van der Spuy is too literal in his interpretation to give an effective performance.
In addition to writing and starring in “Anton,” Mr. van der Spuy also serves as the production’s director. As such, he is heavy-handed and his staging is static and repetitious. Throughout the production, members of the cast move to the center-down-stage position, a stage location that is usually quite powerful when used sparingly. However, van der Spuy uses the position too frequently and actors trying to lose themselves in reverie while in that spot end up looking amateurish and predictable.
It would be unfair to criticize the cast of “Anton” because flawed directing makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between choices that the actors themselves have made and instructions given to them. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that as Evgenia, Anton’s doting mother, Loyita Chapel manages to rise above the fray to deliver a solid and well-rounded performance. Kent Langloss also makes a valiant effort to wade through the mire. Langloss is clearly a talented actor, as evidenced by many truthful and stunning moments he has as Dr. Altshuller. If at times he seems inconsistent, it is through no fault of his own; like the rest of his compatriots, Mr. Langloss is an unfortunate victim of faulty directing.
Toward the end, the play becomes increasingly heavy-handed and didactic. As the tedious production at last grinds to a halt, one can’t help but think that it is never a good idea for a person to direct himself in a piece that he has written--unless of course the person is Clint Eastwood. The concept behind “Anton” is intriguing and Mr. van der Spuy should be commended for his bravery in trying out theater at such a late time in his life. However, Mr. van der Spuy needs to be reminded that most of us in the business have been working at it since pre-pubescence and have still not perfected our craft. To be a successful theater artist, it takes more than a few classes in “the biz” and a deep curiosity; it takes everything.
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.