27 Sep 'Anton in Show Business' may aid Oakland theater

Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theatre Critic
San Francisco Chronicle
September 8, 2010

With any luck, a theatre may finally grow in downtown Oakland.

Why the city hasn’t been able to support a professional theatre company has been one of the Bay Area’s cultural anomalies ever since the long-struggling Oakland Ensemble Theatre folded in the early ’90s. San Francisco has theatre companies to spare. San Jose has several, as does much smaller Berkeley. Mountain View, Orinda, Walnut Creek and Mill Valley house companies with sizable reputations.

TheatreFirst may be poised to fill the vacuum. The small, underfunded but persistent company has been trying for a decade. Founding Artistic Director Clive Chafer managed to mount five seasons in Oakland (one at Mills College), only to lose each of his downtown stages after two years and retreat to Berkeley. When he passed the baton to new Artistic Director Michael Storm last year, however, the company was about to secure a new home.

That space, the Marion E. Green Black Box Theatre, is a considerable improvement over TheatreFirst’s previous venues, which always had a makeshift aura. Located on one side of the recently renovated Fox Theatre, it’s an unusually capacious, flexible black box, with a broad, deep stage and good acoustics. The seats – folding chairs on risers – allow considerable leg room, if less than normal breadth.

Storm opened his second season in the space Friday with the comedy “Anton in Show Business” by Jane Martin, the popular but probably nonexistent author of “Keely and Du,” “Talking With” and other widely produced plays. Martin is generally thought to be the feminist pen name for former Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Jon Jory, who directed the premieres of most of her plays during his 31 years there.

“Anton,” an incisive and wide-ranging comedy about making theatre, was Jory’s valedictory production at Louisville in 2000. Its loving satire of every aspect of regional theatre – pretentious artists, funding fiascoes, the lack of roles for women, small-town censorship, ethnic issues, actors, directors, audiences and critics – has made it a regional theatre staple ever since.

It’s an “Our Town”-like take on an embattled San Antonio theatre’s ill-fated production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” introduced by the stage manager (Amaka Izuchi), who describes the theatrical universe and explains that all roles will be played by women to address casting inequities. The rest of the play roughly mirrors or lampoons “Three Sisters,” particularly in the fates of the women playing the sisters.

The casually peremptory Holly (Josie Alvarez), a TV star needing some legit theatre cred to get better movie roles, calls all the shots because the theatre is relying on her box office pull. Depressed Casey (Beth Deitchman) has been working off-off-Broadway for so long that she’s desperate for a paying gig. Lisabette (Megan Briggs) is a bubbly Texas third-grade teacher thrilled to land her first role.

It’s a very funny send-up of all things theatrical, including itself, even if its insider humor can wear a bit thin – “kind of like beating a dead horse,” as one character observes, “from the inside.” Storm’s staging doesn’t realize its full potential. His seven actors are engaging, often captivating, but few are seasoned enough to capture the full range of nuance in their roles – with the notable exceptions of Phoebe Moyer, as varied artsy directors, and Shannon Veon Kase as the lesbian producer, a smitten local stud and, in one of the funniest scenes, a gay male costume designer.

It’s still pleasant and in many ways enlightening. If “Anton” was an apt valedictory for Jory 10 years ago, its comedy of the problems of making theatre is no less a good argument for a company trying to establish a theatrical foothold in Oakland today.

Anton in Show Business: Comedy. By Jane Martin. Directed by Michael Storm. Through Sept. 26. TheatreFirst, Marion E. Green Black Box Theatre, 531 19th St., Oakland. Two hours, 25 minutes. $15-$30. (510) 436-5085. www.theatrefirst.com.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com.

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