An Ideal Showcase for a
Also see Bob's review of Evita
As satisfying as any production could be, the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre's Anton in Show Business by Jane Martin seems an ideal reading of this widely praised play. Although circumstances prevented your reviewer from seeing the production until its final performance (October 19), it is a must to spotlight the ability of Dreamcatcher Rep to mount productions of exceptional quality. Also, this popular play is likely to be produced with frequency in the foreseeable future and you will want to be on the lookout for it.
Anton is a 15 character play designed to be performed by seven actresses (female actors, if you prefer). The play tells of the snake bitten efforts of Actors Express, a small San Antonio theatre, to stage a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. There are significant parallels between Anton in Show Business and Sisters. However, the author has made certain that those without prior knowledge of Sisters will be able to fully appreciate Anton’s satiric and farcical humor as well as its measure of pathos.
(It is widely assumed that “Jane Martin”, who has written several highly considered plays, is the pseudonym of Jon Jory, who for over 30 years was the producing director of the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville. The ATL produces the Humana Festival of New American Plays where Anton had its successful premiere in 2000.)
Auditioning for Three Sisters are Casey, a struggling veteran of 200 non-salaried roles Off-Off Broadway, and Lisabette, a Texas youngster ready to trade in a third grade teaching job for a fling in the theatre. Already set for the play and in the driver's seat is Holly, a sexy, successful TV actress who has been convinced by her agent that doing a classic stage play (where no one will see it) is her ticket to major movie roles.
Even when her instrument is biting humor, Laura Ekstrand lovingly conveys the sacrifices which Casey has chosen to make in order to pursue her increasingly impossible dream. Yet we never lets us lose sight of the buoyancy, underlying warmth, and eternal hopefulness of Casey. Ekstrand’s Casey, whom everyone tabs for the role of the elder, physically plain sister Olga, provides the emotional center of the play.
Harriett Trangucci delights as Holly, who uses the power of her celebrity to claim the “best” role, that of Masha, the most daring of the sisters. She successfully depicts Holly’s shrewdly manipulative, cruelly self centered aspects without ever losing our sympathy. She also has the physical appearance to be totally convincing as a surgically enhanced show biz beauty.
Kristi Funk acquits herself well in the less demanding ingénue style role of Lisabette, the Actors Express’ third sister Irina. All three beautifully convey the growing affection and inherently temporary bonds forged in the course of rehearsals.
The remaining solo role is that of an extremely minor, exceedingly pretentious theatre critic. Planted in the audience, Barbara Rellstab perfectly captures her earnest pretentiousness.
Much of the evening’s fun is provided by the multiple, richly comic portrayals of members of both sexes by the balance of the company. Nicole Callender delightfully plays the stage manager, a comically racist black director, the arts fund manager for a cigarette company, and the actress who is playing these roles. Her comic enthusiasm is contagious.
Melissa Jane Martin delightfully portrays the hapless producer of Actors Express (Kate), a country western singer engaged to play Masha’s lover Vershinin, and a gay costume designer. Her excellent work makes these characters real and engaging despite the parodist nature of the concept.
The same is true for Noreen Farley who hilariously portrays a fey English director, and movingly fleshes out the longer role of an émigré Russian director. She has a brief third role as an obnoxious donor.
This is Dreamcatcher’s first production in its new space which is currently configured with a rectangular playing area with seating on four sides. The configuration might change for other productions. However, the current configuration is ideal for Anton. It facilitates a spare, fluid scenic production which is perfect for a play with an Our Town-like prologue and short scenes in multiple locations. The configuration gives the audience the feel of being inside the rehearsal space with the actors.
It would be hard to imagine a better interpretation of this play under any circumstances. The fluidity of the staging and the excellence of the performances attest to the skill of director Linda Ames Key. Key seems to capture all that Anton has to offer. Her production is so delightful that any reservations (there is no reason to saddle Casey with a serious illness) and questions (does the author’s concept of having women play all of the roles benefit the play?) are relegated to second thoughts that occur after the euphoria caused by seeing it wears off.
The author raises the question as to whether the play is too self referential. For me, the answer is no. The viewer is not excluded. Among the many issues encompassed in the play is the crucial role of audiences to the entire process. However, it is unlikely that the line about having to play before audiences three weeks from the nursing home registered with the elderly man sitting opposite me. He appeared to be in a daze during those moments when he was not asleep.
Plays about producing plays can be very appealing even when they fail to achieve Anton’s richness and insight. The satire and parody here is often sharp, but it is also loving and forgiving. Anton clearly has strong appeal to theatre artists in its depiction of the plight of theatre professionals. Anyone with any interest in theatre will find the play both hilarious and moving.
Anton in Show Business played October 3 – October 19 at the Dreamcatcher Repertory Company, Baird Cultural Center in Meadowland Park, 5 Mead Street, South Orange, NJ 07079. Box Office: 973-378-7754; online: www.DreamcatcherRep.org.
Anton in Show Business by Jane Martin; directed by Linda Ames Key; Cast: (in order of appearance): Nicole Callender; Melissa Jane Martin; Noreen Farley; Laura Ekstrand; Kristi Funk; Harriett Trangucci; Barbara Rellstab.