My Dinner with Antosha: Notes from the Country Doctor
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
December 12, 2007
Tonight's question: "Why are we worn out? Why do we, who start out so passionate, brave, noble, and believing, become totally bankrupt by the age of 30 or 35? Why is it that, once fallen, we do not try to rise, and having lost one thing, do not seek another?"
This beautiful and brutally honest question now has a show worthy of it. This quote, part of the opening monologue, is also stated prominently on the show's program—a pamphlet entitled "Chekhov Memorial Hospital International Psychiatric Symposium. Case Study #103: The Story of an Unknown Man, 1892." This pamphlet is only one nice touch among many in a thoughtfully and playfully designed show adapted from Chekhov's short piece "An Anonymous Story." The production of My Dinner with Antosha: Notes from the Country Doctor, presented by Studio Six of the Moscow Art Theater, does not exercise the typical Chekhov fare that audiences may have come to expect. Indeed, by using his early pseudonym, "Antosha Chekhonte," and his writing inspired by his "other" life as a doctor, the show seems to strive for something fresh and original. And it delivers.
Before the show even starts, we see a few people onstage in white hospital gowns, cheerfully chatting. The stage is covered with white paper walls and off-white furniture. There is an ominous and surreal feeling in the air. Soon we are shown—but never introduced to—a doctor and two nurses. They appear periodically and mechanically, taking samples and writing notes. One of the subjects of their case study is also the narrator of our story—"the unknown man." He takes a position as a servant for a Petersburg official named Georgiy Ivanych, and there he observes every detail of Georgiy's life—a sterile, self-contented existence consisting of regular visitors and strict schedules. There are no variations, not even in the mood.
Then enters Zinaida, a jumble of fragrance, color, and passion who has left her husband to move in with Georgiy. To her stunned lover she laughs, "Why? You had time to prepare for my invasion. I've been threatening you every day." Georgiy replies, "Yes, but I didn't expect you to carry out your threat precisely today." Georgiy quickly withdraws from her, rents another apartment, and moves out. Zinaida is heartbroken and life seeps out of her.
The servant, outraged by these events, takes Zinaida away from this ruin of a life and admonishes Georgiy, who takes his own behavior with unflappable equanimity: "I'm by no means preaching indifference, I merely want an objective attitude towards life. The more objective, the less risk of falling into error." To that, the servant urges, "Life is given only once, and one would like to live it cheerfully, meaningfully, beautifully."
That seems to be the feeling the show wishes to manifest. Chekhov's ability to discover the humane within the absurd is keenly realized by the group of directors, most of whom are also among the actors. Vasanth J. Santosham, Adam Muskin, Raphael Schklowsky, and Jed Peterson have devised an exquisitely visual play with an absurdist style, emphasizing the funnier elements of Chekhov's story. It's fully engaging and no less poignant. The pacing is tender and often unconventional, taking time for a particular point to be made. The acting is energetic, with Santosham's powerful yet nuanced unknown servant anchoring the show. Jill Dion renders Zinaida quietly moving as her world shatters. Alesia Georgiou and Nicole Kontolefa shine in a fantasy sequence. A great deal of the acting in the show is wordless, and these moments are often among the most effective.
Making Chekhov punchy, physical and even hilarious is a risky choice. But it pays off. The characters emerge as vulnerable and wounded as they are full of bravado and cheer. My Dinner with Antosha: Notes from the Country Doctor is a vital case study of life. Take a close look.