We just received two more excellent reviews for Anton in Show Business – all the more reason to stymie this weekend’s overdose on the tryptophan and Family Time cocktail. Theater! Popcorn! Comedy! Alone-Time! Your friend Leigha! Seriously, does it get better than this?
The Mounds stages both a sendup and celebration of life in the theater: No Business Like Show By Quinton Skinner
Anton Chekhov's 1901 play Three Sisters addressed, roughly speaking, the problems of Russian gentry facing changing times at the turn of the previous century. One could argue that Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business, first performed in 2001, deals with another institution in flux—the American theater, looking for identity amid the economic and social realities that could cause it to change or perish.
Well, I'm not going to pursue that argument. Because aside from an opening monologue about the status of the contemporary stage, this is more a show about theater people than a grand statement about the system they inhabit. With great precision Martin dissects, sends up, and finally exalts show people and the drive for transcendence that allows them to endure all manner of irrationalities and indignities.
The action in this all-female-cast production opens with an audition for a production of Chekhov's play, where the brainy, acerbic Casey (Zoe Benston) meets fresh acting meat just arrived from
Texasin the form of Lisabette (Bethany Ford). The audition goes terribly, thanks to a pompous Brit director (Muriel Bonertz); he and Casey trade barbs that set the tone for a piece that is unapologetically insidery to the end.
Casey, we're told, is a veteran of 200 off-Broadway acting gigs (and as many lovers plucked from the casts of the shows; see, she sleeps around, which is a diametric contrast to Chekhov's dowdy Olga, whom she will later play, because Martin really likes internal subtexts). Casey seems headed for unemployment before she's rescued by the glamorous Holly (Emma Gochberg). Holly is a famous TV actress in search of stage cred as a stepping-stone to a movie role; she insists on hiring Casey and Lisabette, because she's tired of the audition process and wants to get on with things.
The trio decamps for
San Antonio, where they begin rehearsals under the squishy leadership of company administrative director Kate (Mo Perry). It seems the company has entered into a partnership with an agitprop outfit called Black Rage. That means working for new director Andwyneth (Tamala Kendrick), who suggests all manner of deconstruction of old Anton's play and is summarily canned by the all-powerful Holly.
Martin is widely thought to be a pseudonym for former longtime Actors Theatre of Louisville director Jon Jory, a conceit that would be increasingly tedious if Martin's plays didn't tend to be quite good. Here she tries to insulate her work from practitioners of the dark art of theater criticism by inserting Joby (Leigha Horton), who regularly rises up from the front row of the audience to point out, for instance, that a romantic story that arises is pretty superfluous, or that the play may be drifting into sentimentality. Martin seems to want to have her cake, eat it, and put the remainder of it in the fridge for tomorrow's breakfast.
All of which could be cause for lamentation and gnashing of teeth, but Leah Cooper directs the proceedings with ample smarts and sophistication, and the cast delivers engaging work. Benston is world-weary, yet depicts Casey as finding solace in the acuity of her own powers of observation, while Ford rides a
Texasdrawl and galaxies-wide naiveté to emerge as probably the most sympathetic character. Gochberg could have produced a bit more black-widow venom as her jaded starlet, but at times her icy sweetness hints at something even darker.
Kendrick, Perry, and Bonertz each show the capacity to, as Bill Cosby once said, stop on a dime and give you five cents change. Their sharp, multi-character performances are another commentary on the theater by Martin, who alludes to shows just such as this that can't afford to pay actors for every written role, or sometimes any role at all. By the end, we get a summoning of the connection and community that theater is all about, sort of, that almost cuts through all the cynicism. But by then we've seen enough sheer charm that such an invocation seems almost unnecessary. Anyhow, someone, somewhere, will always be putting on a show.
ANTON IN SHOW BUSINESS Starting Gate Productions at the Mounds Theatre through December 2 651.645.3503
Single White Fringe Geek (and Mom) //In My Humble Opinion Anton In Show Business - Starting Gate Productions - 4-1/2 stars
“Outside rehearsal, I’m a virgin. It’s just that I’m always in rehearsal.”
I have to be honest. I hate most shows about theater. Most of the time, it’s just all too self-involved and precious. Art about artists leaves me cold.
“I will f**k you with my art, and you will cry out.”
Imagine my surprise then, that I loved Anton In Show Business - a play about a hapless group of theater people desperately trying to mount to production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
“They come from the mist, they return to the mist.”
I probably shouldn’t be too surprised, considering the line-up of artists involved. Director Leah Cooper leads a great all-female ensemble of actors (and stage hands) through Jane Martin’s tale of theatrical mishaps. In fact, it was just that combination of people that first made me think, “With these folks involved, a play about putting on a play couldn’t be all bad.” Far from being all bad, it was nearly all good.
“Screw Thespis... Run for your lives.”
The script treads a fine line because it actively engages nearly every single stereotype about the theater and artists. Where it succeeds is when it allows us to engage the people on stage as human beings first, artists second. The play, and production, doesn’t take it for granted that we care. It allows us to get to know the characters, and then we care about what they care about. We root for them to get what they want. The fact that the thing they care about, and want, is theater, is in many ways oddly secondary. What these women want is what we all want - a sense of connection to other people, the assurance that what we are doing with our lives matters somehow, the knowledge that even when we fail, repeatedly, all is not lost. These are some of the things that matter most to Chekhov, in addition to ridiculing hypocrisy. When the script finds modern ways to convey those same longings and skewer the same falsehoods, the story and the characters really soar. The fact that it often does so the same way Chekhov did, with a generous sense of humor about human frailty, is doubly commendable. This makes it comedy that matters just as much, if not more, than drama.
“Pardon me, Jesus.”
The play starts with an overview of the state of theater and the performing arts in general, by our wisecracking stage manager narrator (Tamala Kendrick) - which, though well-performed, didn’t exactly set me at ease. It then segued into an audition sequence with all the unfortunate stock types - the southern-fried ingenue (Bethany Ford), the jaded off-off-off-Broadway regular (Zoe Benston) with recurring breast cancer, the impossibly statuesque and beautiful TV actress bankrolling a vanity project to get some artistic respect (Emma Gochberg), the hopelessly pretentious producer (Mo Perry), the obtuse and abusive director (Muriel Bonertz). It’s almost as if Jane Martin knows that as long as the script keeps both the familiar and the punchlines coming, it buys itself the time to flesh out the characters while our guard is down. It engages the audience in some storytelling shorthand to draw them in and then does its best to subvert all expectations.
And it worked. When the lights came up at intermission, I felt like no time at all had passed. I would happily have sat in the company of these performers for far longer in the first half, and it made me anxious to return to the rest of the story they had to share. That’s not something that happens all that often. Anton In Show Business is just the right combination of sharp script and even sharper performers. This is especially true of the three leads of this production, also the three sisters of the production within the production.
I’ve seen Bethany Ford (Lisabette, the
Texasingenue) in supporting roles in other productions but in this one she snuck up on me (much like her character) and completely won me over. The final moments of the play belong to her - a simple but moving story about how theater connects people, on and offstage alike, in a search for meaning and purpose. It sounds pretentious, but it was quite lovely. After seeing her breathe life into this goofy damaged young woman, I’m looking forward to whatever Ford chooses to do next.
Zoe Benston (Casey, the theater veteran) never ceases to amaze me with her ability to make any character, in any kind of production (good or bad), compelling to watch. It’s as much in the eyes as in the words. There is a full life, full of triumphs and disappointments and unreasonable hope for something better, lurking behind the eyes of this worn-out woman, Casey. Her tired smile, her reluctant sentimentality, her inability to escape the role of mentor and mother to others, all speak volumes. When, toward the end, a director seeks to dismiss their efforts to present Chekhov’s play, the wordless slow-burning anger building in Casey’s eyes had me making a mental note never to get on Benston’s bad side. Not sure how many of those stares a person could take and remain standing.
Holly the TV star could have been a thankless role in the wrong hands. Good thing they gave it to Emma Gochberg. Not only does she look every inch the part, but she never lets the high volume of jokes at Holly’s expense, and the expense of her chosen career trajectory, sail by unanswered. Yes, some people are shallow. But shallow people are people, too. This could have been the weak side of the central character triangle, but instead Gochberg’s unapologetic portrayal threatened to walk off with moment after moment in the production. Holly may burn through directors, jobs and men faster than most people, but just when you think you’ve got her figured out, or can dismiss her, she reminds you why you have to continue paying close attention. Neither the script, nor Gochberg’s work, are as simple as that.
Each in multiple roles, regularly crossing gender lines, Muriel Bonertz, Tamala Kendrick, and Mo Perry proved they can do pretty much anything you throw at them. Bonertz probably gets to have the most fun, playing three different but all powerful men - a British theater director with delusions of coherence, a Polish theater director with a maddening but ultimately effective way of demanding more from his actors, and Joe Bob, the head of the theater’s board of directors, channeling the bewilderment of modern theater audiences and finally putting it into words. Kendrick makes the most of turns as characters as different as the African American director brought in to score the theater some grant money for diversity, and the tobacco executive who funds the arts, and isn’t shy about calling people out for spitting on his money even as they continue to take it and use it. Perry is quite funny as the sly costume designer, and the theater-obsessed but ultimately lovelorn producer, but it is, strangely enough, as a male character that, like Bonertz, she most impresses. Perry’s turn as castmate Ben, the decent married guy who succumbs to Holly’s seductive charms and turns his life inside out for his co-star, is an odd experience for the audience. The way she carries herself and modulates her voice, it’s easy to forget she’s a woman. What might otherwise be billed as “hot girl-on-girl action” between Perry and Gochberg ends up seeming very much like a standard heterosexual affair. One of the many surprises that production keeps coming from beginning to end.
Even the character who should not work at all, works because of the actress into whose hands it has been entrusted. Joby is not just a critic who rises up out of the audience to repeatedly engage the actors onstage in a discussion of the play’s merit, Joby is the playwright’s internal censor. To its credit, the script plays with the idea of an audience plant in remarkably agile ways. But by voicing any and all objections to the content and presentation of the play, within the play itself, it seems like the author is trying to inoculate the text against any and all criticism from the outside. (Say it quickly about yourself before anyone else has a chance.) The main reason I object to this as a tactic is that it keeps the author from writing a better play. (“I can’t solve that problem, so I’ll just make fun of the fact I can’t solve the problem, and then skip to the next bit.”) It also keeps the audience at a constant distance from the characters. There are only so many times you can be jerked in and out of the story of the play before you just stop emotionally investing in it at all. This tactic isn’t what the play is ultimately about, otherwise Joby would have the last word, not Lisabette. All that said, Leigha Horton plays Joby full out from her perch in the front row. Not knowing the script, when Joby is threatened with being pulled up onstage and into the play itself, I found myself wishing, “Yes, please let Leigha Horton actually be part of the play we’re supposed to be watching.” Horton makes the role of gadfly work, but I was hoping they’d let her do more. Well, there’s always the next show.
So, a production which on the surface I should have disliked, I loved. A production that I expected to find tedious, engaged me instead and just flew by. Theater is a very confusing thing sometimes. But that’s also what Anton In Show Business is about. So go be confused and conflicted and highly entertained for yourself.
Very Highly Recommended.
Anton In Show Business from Starting Gate Productions runs for two more weekends, through December 2, 2007 at the Mounds Theater in
St. Paul 1029 Hudson Road). Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $18 regular, $16 for seniors, students and Fringe button holders, and $10 for high schoolers. More information on the theater, production, directions and tickets is available at www.startingate.org, www.moundstheatre.org, or by calling 651-645-3503