27 Sep TheatreFirst scores big laughs with ‘Anton in Show Business’

By Pat Craig
Mercury News Correspondent
September 8th, 2010

The play is good, really good, right from the beginning.

“Anton in Show Business” is a comedy, a prickly, pointed, take-no-prisoners comedy about theatre. And, to me, anyway, watching it has the same exhilarating feel as driving too fast down Highway 1 in a convertible.

It’s dangerously funny, and only afterward do you think about the possibility of spraining your innards by laughing that hard. OK, it slows toward the end, but it would be impossible to keep up comedy like that for 2½ hours.

The point is, though, it not only generates huge laughter, but it makes some spot on commentary about contemporary American theatre, from its rabid passion for reinterpretation over innovation, its headlong rush toward political correctness, its lamenting the lack of wide audience support while courting niche audiences, its tragic lack of broad commercial support and reliance on the whim of donors, and the dozens of other paradoxes that make modern theatre so confounding.

Having a background in theatre probably makes the Jane Martin script funnier, but even if your entire theatrical training involves watching “Gold Diggers of 1933,” a visit with “Anton” at the Marion E. Greene Black Box Theatre in Oakland’s Fox Theatre building is worthwhile (and most of the time, street parking is available). Martin, by the way, is strongly rumored to be a pen name of John Jory, former artistic director of the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, a fellow who knows his theatrical onions.

The play, directed by TheatreFirst’s artistic director Michael Storm and performed on a very simple and basic set, follows a Texas production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” from a casting studio in New York to a final tragic ending at the airport where the trio of young actresses — Holly (Josie Alvarez), a television star trying to legitimize her talent by acting in a classis; Lisabette (Megan Briggs), a freshly minted Texas drama school grad, now teaching third grade, who sees this as her big break; and Casey Mulgraw (Beth Deitchman), a veteran actress who hopes to shine like a star in the eyes of her mother by finally getting paid. All three created memorable characterizations.

The cast is rounded out by Dekyi Ronge as Joby, a theatre critic who interrupts and discusses the play with comments as the story unfolds; and Amaka Izuchi, Shannon Veon Kase and Phoebe Moyer, who brilliantly play a variety of roles ranging from an angry black director, to an English-and-then-a-Polish director, to an artistic director, and a love-struck husband with a crush on an actress.

All of the roles, male and female, are played by women to make the comment, the script says, on the fact most roles are created for men, most directors are men and, aside from Joby, most Bay Area theatre critics are men (full disclosure — I am filling in for this newspaper female critic for a few months).

Yes, the play is wildly self-referential. Yes, a lot of the situations are unique to the theatre. And yes, this is a very sharp behind-the-scenes look at how theatre actually works.

But it is extremely accurate in its vision. It should be worth at least six semester units at a drama school. And, most importantly, it’s one of the funniest shows to come along in quite awhile.

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