Review: “Anton In Show Business” (20% Theatre Company Chicago)

Show:  Anton In Show Business

Anton in Show Business (photo by 20% Theatre)
Anton in Show Business
(photo by 20% Theatre)

Company: 20% Theatre Company Chicago

Venue: Zoo Studio

Die Roll: 4

Hello, all! Chris has graciously asked me to fill in for him while he is out battling the wilds, (read: camping), so here I am.  Let’s get to it.

Anton In Show Business is, first and foremost, a play about women: our role in the theatre world, how we’re represented in that world, and how we’re not. I have to admit that the Grrl inside me loves this play, while the actor in me acknowledges that this script requires a deft touch so as not to beat the audience over the head with its Real Life Examples of What Theatre Is.

We start with a manifesto delivered by stage manager T-Anne (JaLinda Wilson-Woods) about the state of twenty-first century theatre, which is both funny and cynical as hell. Then, we launch into the main story: TV star Holly Seabé (Kristi Forcsch) wants to amp up her acting cred by starring in a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters,  in the hopes of landing a juicy movie role to up her career. She’s arranged for auditions to fill in the other two sisters’ roles, which is where we meet Casey Mulgraw (Lindsay Bartlett), an off-Broadway vet with 200 shows under her belt and fading hopes of ever hitting the big time. Joining her is former school-teacher and newly-minted actress Lisabette Cartwright (Marla Jacob), whose sweet naiveté runs counter to Casey’s wry worldliness.

Surrounded by zany producers, the world’s oldest Polish director, and a host of other characters (all embodied by four members of the cast – all women), our ladies battle the ins and outs of regional theatre, pecking order, and trying not to kill the reviewer in the audience. Not me, fortunately: Joby (Grace Wagner),  a smart young thing who questions the play, the actors, and the rules we theatre folk play by, and who demands answers. Sometimes she gets them, and sometimes there just aren’t any answers.

The action moves from New York to San Antonio as Three Sisters develops from a train wreck to…less of a train wreck. Olivia Jaras, who also plays eccentric producer Kate Tdorovskia, really shines as sweet San Antonio local Ben Shipwright, hired on to play Vershinin in Three Sisters, who takes up with self-centered tabloid-bait Holly. The actors have a lovely, believable chemistry together, and Jaras’ stoicism in the aftermath of the affair is quite moving.

Anton moves at a decent pace, but the first act was a little uneven. Given that I saw it opening night, I have faith that some of that inconsistency will even out over the course of the run. The script is also a little looser in the first act; it tightens considerably in the second act, building momentum through the resolution and dissolution of the three sisters.  There’s a natural ending that leaves Lisabette alone on the stage, and it might have behooved Jane Martin to end there. Instead, she gives us one more monologue to wrap up loose ends.

The set consists of a false proscenium with extendable wing-flats whose flexibility cleverly evokes a number of different locations throughout the play. Sound, props and furniture are minimal – they only use what is necessary. Simplicity is necessary is a small space, and Anton uses what is available very well.

I had mixed reactions to this performance. Joby’s interruptions tended to occur just when I thought the quality of the storytelling was starting to degrade. Fortunately, the exchanges she had with the cast pulled me up short every time I felt myself getting hypercritical, and restored my perspective because she voiced the concerns running though my head at a given moment.

What really stuck with me, though, was something Witkewich, the frail and brilliant director of our play within a play, tells the girls: “You are good enough to do the Chekhov you are good enough to do”. Combined with Casey’s earlier explosion against those audience-goers who leave during a curtain call, “Hey! Excuse me! Could you show a little mercy because I just left it all out here on stage…?” remind me, as an actor in the audience, that theatre thrives on mutual respect. I’m not trying to damn with faint praise; rather, I want recognize that we do the shows that we are capable of doing in a given time and place.

Where the play shines is in the small moments between characters; unfortunately, a lot of potential moments were left in the dust. The staging also suffered from flat presentation – there was a fair bit of profile-acting going on. Overall, the production felt a little disconnected.  That said, the play was enjoyable, and I applaud 20% Theatre’s commitment to creating women-centric theatre. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The relationship between women and theatre is messy. Accept yourself.

DICE ROLL:  d10 – “Worth Going To”