Anton in Show Business

Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business satirically skewers everything in modern theatre, and the Vestige Group's production will have your cheeks sore from laughing

Arts Review

Anton in Show Business

City Theatre, through April 29

For me personally, it is always delicious to catch a show in which a theatre critic is the target of thespian jokes. In Anton in Show Business, a critic interrupts the show whenever she pleases, commenting on the action with bookish, analytical gobbledygook and statements like, "This is the whole problem with 20th century theatre. We used to get stories; now we get interpretations." But when she is asked to go onstage, the critic chickens out. Who does she think she is? Oh, wait.

As a young woman in her 20s who suffers from stage fright, I find it particularly refreshing to see the fourth wall come tumbling down and a "critic" materialize in the audience as a female hipster in her 20s with a small notepad and glasses the way she does in this meta-play. It's easy for me to focus on this for obvious reasons.

The play that this refreshing figure is constantly interrupting concerns a TV celeb with no theatrical experience who wants to produce and star in Chekhov's Three Sisters as a means of giving her career a boost (the logic being that doing a classic on the legitimate stage will make Hollywood see her as a serious actress). For her co-stars, she hires two pigeonholed actresses: a wide-eyed, Bible-thumping ingenue and a cancer-prone spinster who still wards off nagging calls from her mother. This setup allows playwright Jane Martin to provide a satirical commentary on the injustices in all aspects of the American theatre, from acting, directing, and writing to funding, design, and, um, critics, with a particular eye toward topical offenses such as glass-ceiling casting for women and the stereotyping of African-Americans in theatre. Martin satirizes the minimal funding for the arts by having her Chekhov production depend on corporate support from big tobacco. (If you've ever hung out by a greenroom, you'd think actors must get paid in cigarettes.) She pokes fun at the shortage of good American directors with a director who's imported from Europe with an ego the size of Texas. And seven actresses play all the roles, including the male parts, because as one character puts it, "Eighty percent of the roles in the American theatre are played by men, and 90 percent of the directors are men." Martin skewers everything in the modern American theatre with a satirical flourish that will have your cheeks sore from laughing.

Bored stagehands, tight funding, and prima donnas are challenges for most theatres, but especially so for smaller companies. And such budding theatre groups could probably tell the pseudonymous "Ms. Martin" a thing or two about what it is to struggle. (Martin's identity has been a mystery for 25 years, although she has long been linked to Jon Jory, the former artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, the prestigious resident theatre where her plays have premiered). This is what makes Vestige Group's production of Anton in Show Business so precious. The actors walk with the weight of experience and familiarity on their shoulders. It might seem like acting like an actor is easy, but the three leading characters here are as complicated and diverse as Chekhov's three sisters. Gwen Kelso's Holly is sassy and warm, as far as a self-absorbed soap star who'd step on anybody for a movie deal goes, anyway. As Casey, Jessica Medina's dry humor gives the impression of someone who ventures between skepticism and boredom. Kathleen Fletcher's facial expressions and dopey glances as Lisabette are spot on; she is not only the right age for a Broadway-bound actress but also seems to have the bright eyes and glint already built in. As the cowboy Ben, who leaves his wife, Julie Winston-Thomas is a little unbelievable and out of place in the production, but only because the script calls for it. Elizabeth Rast's mammoth overacting as the show's multiple directors is "funny, funny, funny, funny, and tragic." But those directors' flaws are not shared by Susie Gidseg, who stages this production. Pretension and elitism are not in evidence here. Working on a bare stage with minimal props and costumes, the actors hit the mark for each pratfall and joke and project the attitude of an easygoing company of ladies. And at the end, Jen Brown's spunky and humble critic sums up the production with kind words that even I could have written.

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Anton in Show Business, Vestige Group, Jane Martin, Gwen Kelso, Jessica Medina, Kathleen Fletcher, Susie Gidseg

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