ANTON IN SHOW BUSINESS Starting Gate Productions at the Mounds Theatre through December 2 651.645.3503
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.
Break a leg: Muriel Bonertz, Emma Gochberg, and Mo Perry (left to right) take on Chekhov
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 Texas in 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 Texas drawl 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.