Wonder Women

The reviews are in – Anton in Show Business (my latest onstage escapade [performed from a seat in the audience]), opened last weekend and has received the official thumbs-up from the press. I was proud to be working with such an insightful, talented, fearless group of women during the rehearsal process, and am thrilled that the press sees what I see (especially the part about Mo Perry kicking arse as a man – she is seriously smokin’ hot as Ben Shipwright).

Pioneer Press - 'Anton' goes behind the scenery

BY DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA, Theater Critic Article Last Updated: 11/12/2007 06:48:03 PM CST


I've been waiting for some local theater to stage "Anton in Show Business" since I saw the play's premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000. That many years of waiting can often result in a letdown, but I'm delighted to report that Jane Martin's loving lampoon of the backstage business of theater remains fresh and funny, and that Starting Gate Productions offers a crisp and lively staging that rewards theater insiders and tickles mainstream audiences, as well.

Under Martin's sometimes-poisonous pen, a cast of seven women conjures a microcosm of the American regional theater movement, telling the tale of a hinterland company in Texas attempting to stage Chekhov's "Three Sisters." The cast of the play-within-the-play is toplined by a jaded off-Broadway veteran, a breathless newbie and a talentless TV star slumming on the stage.

Along their hapless way, the actresses encounter overeducated artistic directors, skuzzy corporate underwriters, bombastic foreign artists, rich-rube board members and self-important critics.

It's a wise, sharp-eyed and wickedly funny look at the business of theater, written by someone who's been there (the pseudonymous Martin is widely believed to be Jon Jory, who ran the Actors Theatre of Louisville for three decades). Previous theater experience and a working knowledge of Chekhov are helpful - but by no means necessary - to enjoy the play, which is generously larded with laughs at the expense of the aesthetic folk it caricatures.

Director Leah Cooper (who, as the former executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, has her own stories about the sausage factory of theater) keeps the play's centrifugal force spinning with a number of smart little touches (including a visible, attitude-charged group of black-clad stagehands and pre-show soundtrack that includes Broadway showtunes from "You're the Top" to "Springtime for Hitler").

Her cast is composed mainly of actresses who have been toiling on the Twin Cities' small- and very-small-theater circuit; this show could be a calling card for any one of them.

Zoe Benston is not quite deadpan and strikes the right blend of warmth and weariness as Casey, the actress who's seen it all. Emma Gochberg is a take-no-prisoners, matter-of-fact tigress as Holly, the blonde, babelicious TV star who doesn't allow her limitations to get in the way of her career. And Bethany Ford puts plenty of starry-eyed wonder into the naive Lisabette. The trio builds a great sense of chemistry and comic timing, providing a strong core both for themselves and for the orbits of the supporting characters.

Foremost among the latter is Mo Perry, who shows discipline and a ton of range playing the quietly libidinous artistic director, an aw-shucks country singer of a leading man and - in a turn that approaches grand theft acting - an en fuego but savvy costume designer.

Kudos, too, go to Tamala Kendrick, Muriel Bonertz and Leigha Horton. Martin writes everyone a spotlight moment or two; Cooper underscores them lightly and the cast members take their turns under the klieg with grace and skill and then slip seamlessly back into the ensemble.

If you love theater so much that it drives you crazy, "Anton in Show Business" will reinforce both your passions and your prejudices. If you just want to have a good, escapist night at the theater, it's hard to go wrong with this solidly written and well-performed peek behind the curtain.

Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at dpapatola@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-2165.

What: "Anton in Show Business," staged by Starting Gate Productions

When: Through Dec. 2

Where: Mounds Theatre, 1029 Hudson Road, St. Paul

Tickets: $18

Call: 651-645-3503

Capsule: A farce? Only if you've never worked in the theater.

Star Tribune - 'Anton in Show Business' is a deconstruction site In Starting Gate's production of the Jane Martin play, a sagging second act doesn't negate the farce or the satire.

By William Randall Beard, Special to the Star Tribune

Last update: November 12, 2007 – 2:51 PM

In billing its sixth season as "Plays Written by Women Playwrights," Starting Gate Productions is being a bit disingenuous. It is a poorly kept secret that the "Jane Martin" who wrote the troupe's currently running "Anton in Show Business," is really a man. But then, that's the kind of theatrical sleight of hand that this play specializes in.

While she was executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, director Leah Cooper saw her share of theater crazies. And she represents them well in this fast-paced production, depicting them with both love and a razor-sharp wit.

A theater in Texas is producing Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters." The cast includes Lisabette, a perky newcomer, as Irina, Casey, a hard-bitten veteran, as Olga, and Holly, a ditzy TV star, as Masha. Rehearsals got horribly awry in this far-fetched backstage farce.

But this show is as much satire as farce. Martin wants to have her cake and eat it too. And she does. She pokes fun at deconstruction and then she deconstructs. She uses an all-female cast and then parodies that decision. Through the interruptions of an audience member, she skewers the most precious and pretentious elements of contemporary theater.

At times, the play feels too much like an inside joke. But there's enough that's universal in the behavior of these silly, arrogant and deluded people to engage even the neophyte.

Unfortunately, the play cannot maintain its initial anarchic energy. By the middle of the second act, it bogs down with not enough plot to propel the comedy. And in the final scenes, Martin attempts to set up a tragic parallel to Chekhov that becomes overly sentimental and preachy.

While the cast cannot save the ending, they are excellent indeed. Emma Gochberg delights in the narcissistic myopia of Holly, who knows how to use her power. Bethany Ford makes Lisabette's naiveté endearing, while still sharply mocking the character's Texas background. And Zoe Benston gives Casey a dark cynicism, but also the most emotional depth.

Mo Perry pulls off a real tour de force, playing in turn a lesbian producer, a male country singer and a flamboyant gay costumer. Muriel Bonertz also dazzles as three men, an arrogant British director, an arrogant Slavic director and the arrogant president of the theater board.

It is said that the hardest thing to write is a second act. "Anton in Show Business" bears that out. But there is still enough that is funny, incisive and outrageous in the play and especially in this strong production to consider the evening a success.

William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.

Talkin’ Broadway - Starting Gate Productions Anton in Show Business -Ed Huyck

Prolific and enigmatic playwright Jane Martin has tackled many a personal, social and political issue during her (his? their?) long career, but there is an extra level of sharp venom in Anton in Show Business, a deconstruction of the modern American theater world. Starting Gate Productions delivers a strong reading of the play - one that not only finds the laughs on the surface of the play, but gets into the heart of the characters and what the theater means, to the actors and the audience.

The theater jokes come fast and furious, such as the stage manager's early description of New York City, where she describes the Actor's Equity Office as the place that "makes sure no more than 80 percent of its members are out of work at any one time." The characters aren't spared either. Set against a doomed production of The Three Sisters at Theater Express, a San-Antonio-based company, the play introduces three generic "types" for the leads: a fame-driven Hollywood actress looking to get into movies; a bitter New York City performer who has appeared in 200 shows without getting paid; and a naïve young Texan getting her first break in show business. They interact with a bevy of familiar types, from over-educated artistic director to handsome leading man to an insane group of directors. There's also a theater critic in the audience who interrupts the proceedings from time to time, to the consternation of the actors on stage.

If it remained a show-biz parody, Anton in Show Business would be a fairly entertaining piece that eventually wears out its welcome. Yet the script has more depth, and the actors mine that for all it's worth, crafting a number of characters that live well beyond their clichés.

The all-woman cast includes a number of standout performances, including Zoe Benston as the bitter New York actor Casey, Emma Gochberg as Hollywood refugee Holly, and Bethany Ford as Texan Lisabette. The three truly become "sisters" through the play, ending with a beautiful reading of the final scene from Chekhov's play. In multiple roles, Muriel Bonertz, Tamala Kendrick and Mo Perry do good work, while Leigha Horton gives critic Joby lots of nervous energy, but also generates sympathy for her own position in the world.

Leah Cooper does a solid job directing, though the show does have a few rough edges (awkward scene changes, a few dropped lines) that should have been smoothed over before the show opened. Still, Anton in Show Business is a fine production that gets to the heart of the why of theater in a way other insider plays have not been able to do.

Anton in Show Business runs through December 2 at the Mounds Theatre, 1029 Hudson Road, St. Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651-645-3503 or visit www.startinggate.org.


Photo: John Autey