by Lynn on August 29, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

Anton in Show Business

 At the Sterling Studio Theatre, Toronto. Written by Jane Martin. Directed by Danka Scepanovic and Danielle Bourgon. Sound by Sina Shahrestani. Lighting by Danka Scepanova. Starring: Kirsten Alter, Shadi Shahkhalili, Zerha Leverman, Teresa V Leja, Melissa Story, Jess Salquerio, Caroline Millen and Danka Scepanovic.

Produced by Rhizõma Productions. Plays at the Sterling Studio Theatre, 163 Sterling Road, Unit 5, until September 7.

Anton in Show Business by Jane Martin, is a play about a small experimental theatre company in Texas that is putting on their version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. One of the experiments is that all the parts are played by women. The reasoning of course is that men get all the good parts (except for the three sisters) and so the Artistic Director of the company, Kate Todoravskia, intends to right that inequity.

The star of this production of Three Sisters is a blonde, breast-implanted bimbette named Holly Seabé, whose claim to fame is that she’s some kind of TV star who tends to take off her clothes more than she acts, and hence is the draw for the production. She plays Masha. She was told to get some acting cred so she took this theatre gig to elevate her stature.  Two other actresses audition and are rejected until Seabé intervenes when she sees how badly they are treated by the smarty-pants Brit director. Casey Mulgraw, tall, angular and rather striking, plays Olga. Mulgraw has toiled Off-Broadway for years working for no money, who often comments on her own plainness and so thinks that Olga is the only role for her. Lisabette Cartwright plays Irina. She has just graduate with a Masters of Fine Arts degree from a local university and this is her first professional job. She has a thick southern accent and not a clue about the theatre. Someone mentions Lorraine Hansbury’s play A Raisin In the Sun, and Cartwright looks at her blankly. She never heard of it. (Oh dear).

Directors come and go, each bringing their own attitudes and chips on their shoulder until they settle on the Russian director, Wikéwitch, who brings a furrowed brow and the weight of the enormous responsibility of doing Chekhov right on his shoulders. He has particular difficulties to get anything like a performance out of Ms. Seabé.

The major sponsor is a culture-challenged ‘good-old-boy’ who owns a tobacco company. Ms Mulgraw has words about how tobacco kills that does not sit too well with him. And there is a woman sitting in the front row who interrupts the proceedings whenever they get something wrong in Chekhov. She is a purist who does not seem to be open to experimentation. The company often engages her; often tells her to sit down; and finally learns that she writes ‘reviews’ for a magazine that sells cars. She has pretensions of ‘being a critic, one day.’ I say to myself, ‘not in this lifetime, girlie.’

 Anton in Show Business is billed as a satire about the theatre. It isn’t. It’s a jumble of clichés. After all how can you improve on the real thing? We all have seen dreadful productions of plays, and not just classics, starring talentless movie, TV stars hired for their celebrity status, directed by incompetent directors. We have seen theatre companies funded in questionable ways, only to be shut down because the funding came ‘from the devil’ (tobacco, booze). We’ve all read scribblers who know nothing about the theatre but want to be considered as critics. (Sigh).

The first speech of Anton in Show Business is a mean-spirited dirge by a bitter stage manager who tells us about Broadway being the only place to be. She says that Broadway goes from 42nd Street to 52nd Street. My brow is crinkled and I think, “No it doesn’t.” She says that Off-Broadway is grungy and suggests that it’s not important. Again I’m thinking, “wrong again.” She says that the regional theatre used to do good work but not anymore. My eyebrows are knitting. Since 2000 (when Anton in Show Business first appeared), six of the last twelve Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (one year it wasn’t awarded) were given to plays that began in a regional theatre, the others went to plays that began Off-Broadway.

I’m thinking, who is this twit of a playwright, Jane Martin, who doesn’t know her theatre facts?  A quick search of Google when I get home. Who Jane Martin is has been a mystery for two decades. She doesn’t exist. It’s believed she is a pen name for Jon Jory, at one time the artistic director of the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. He did great work putting that theatre on the map. All of Jane Martin’s plays premiered at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville with Jory directing. But no one has ever actually seen her; interviewed her; or spoken to her. Jory spoke on her behalf. To be fair one of ‘Jane Martin’s’ plays, Keeley and Du, won the 1994 American Theatre Critics Award.

She got lucky with that one.  Anton in Show Business is another matter. It is often done in university drama schools for the very reason mentioned in the play—there are more women than men in those programs, and an eight-character play all cast with women, is right up their alley. As far as I can tell it has not had a mainstream production aside from Louisville. It’s not hard to see why. For the most part it’s a play trying too hard to be funny and relevant.

The company of actresses is valiant. As Lisabette, Shadi Shahkhalili is doe-eyed, eager to please, and the innocent. As Casey Mulgraw the hard-working Off-Broadway actress just trying to do good work and make a living for once, Zerha Leverman is striking—she could play Masha– knowing and watchful. As Holly Seabém Teresa T. Leja is pouty, breathy, dim, and endearingly feisty when it counts. I wish that Kirsten Alter as the stage-manager (among others), did not race through her first speech, or drop the ends of her sentences. It’s the set-up for the play. We have to hear every word.

While I think the play is a disappointment, there are two terrific speeches in it that do talk about the theatre that hits the mark. And both are delivered beautifully by Danka Scepanovic (who also co-directed with Danielle Bourgon). The first speech is as Wikéwitch, the Russian director. He laments that he is passionate about Chekhov, can’t sleep for the fretting; that it’s his life and these actresses don’t have the talent to bring it off. Scepanovic, prowls the stage, raging and lamenting at the situation and it’s wonderfully moving.

The second speech is said to Kate Todoravskia, the Artistic Director of the company by Joe Bob a man who made some money and has been putting it into that company…”so my wife can drag me down here to see plays nobody can understand with a buncha people I would never invite to dinner….Half the time, that stuff doesn’t have a story…” Brilliant. With this one Scepanovic, is busy clearing chairs away, moving things off the stage, off-handed and absolutely hilarious. Wonderful work.

The Sterling Studio Theatre a space that works on the bare basics, but wants to give small companies a space to do their work. The actual theatre is down the dark side of a building with lousy signage. It’s hard to find where the box office is without people to point the way.  Rhizõma Productions, the company producing Anton in Show Business, is a company doing theatre on a shoestring. The program is spare of information like the actual dates of the production and the name of the theatre on the front cover. There is no biographical information on the actors or director.

But….on Tuesday night, Aug. 28 when I saw the play, there was a terrible rainstorm with flooding. We were told by the front of house they were holding the curtain to allow for latecomers. I over-heard other front of house folks whisper to the box office man that the toilets were not available as the plumbing was compromised and there was no electricity for some of the stuff on stage. But there was no panic. They went about their business to fix the problems with calm, efficiency and professionalism, and for that I will forgive these shoestring organizations almost anything. That kind of dedication and the eagerness to want to put on a show,  is why the theatre is glorious, even when the play is lousy.






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