by Michael Bowen
Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business is the finest contemporary script Interplayers has produced in the last dozen years, and the seven-woman ensemble is among the theater's very best during that same span.
Anton is about actors bemoaning their chosen career: little respect, no money, the insensitivity of arrogant directors, the insolence of office, the spurns that patient merit o'th'unworthy takes...
Enough with the self-pity. Except that Chekhov's Three Sisters, the template for Martin's play, is all about self-sadness carried to such an extreme that it becomes ludicrous. We laugh at the Prozorov sisters stuck in their provincial town, we laugh at their squabbles and sadness, we laugh at how aimless and trivial their existence seems, until we realize the same things about our own lives. Funny, funny, funny, funny, tragic: We laugh to keep our demons at bay.
Martin's stare-down satire follows three actresses as they audition for, rehearse and eventually -- almost -- perform the roles of the three sisters. In Chekhov's play, Olga, the schoolmarm, has never found love; Masha, married to a pedant, lacks the resolve to extend an affair with the morose soldier Vershinin; Irina, the youngest and most idealistic, settles for a clerical job and a man she doesn't love, then loses even those. The final tableau shows the sisters, abandoned by the soldiers and literally forced out of their own home by their acquisitive sister-in-law, listening sadly to a marching band and placing their hopes in a move to Moscow that we and even they know they will never make. That's when Olga murmurs the play's famous final line, "If only we could know."
Anton, in a similar way, "calls into question whether it's kind of over for the theater." Has it ceased to be a cultural force? One character states the blunt truth, that too many contemporary plays are "about how rich people is bad and Democrats is good and white people is stupid and homosexuals have more fun an' we should get rid of the corporations an' eat grass an' then, by God, you wonder why you don't have a big audience!"
It's a valid charge, and there's more coming. When the theater's producer faces off against the smug corporate donor near the end of Act One, the on-the-nose scenario would have the Evil Corporate Monster abashed by the theater person's paean to the value of the arts. And Martin does let the theater plead its case, and does paint the corporate donor as a hypocrite, manipulator and philistine.
But the playwright doesn't let the scene pass without American theater being subjected to some self-criticism. The tobacco executive calmly says that "if you take money from us, it is disingenuous to make a pretense of morality... given that your very profession is pretense, I still have the pleasure of enjoying your morality as entertainment."
If theater (verbal, communal) "doesn't speak to the culture" as well as do video and TV (visual, solitary), then maybe a solution is not to move the theater toward special effects but to nudge the culture closer to a love of words and social gatherings focused not on audience members' self-display but on spectators losing themselves in the spectacle. (That'll only take, oh, decades of massive public education.)
The ensemble provides a good example of that kind of theater. One of the pleasures of this show is watching one honest and well-observed moment after another roll across the Interplayers stage. Melissa D. Brown as a theater critic (that sound was me squirming in my seat); Jone Campbell Bryan, with accents British, Polish and Texan; Rebecca M. Davis, who makes black radicals look both justified and comic; Scarlett Hepworth, especially as a strong-and-silent cowboy singer; Holli Hornlien, who plays a man-killer and looks like she means it; and Marguerite Hammersley, whose bemused comments out of the side of her mouth I would listen to anywhere.
But perhaps the real revelation in the cast is Sarah Lebahn, a student from SFCC and EWU who makes her professional stage debut here as Lisabette, the naive young thing who's been through more than her share of trauma but nonetheless maintains a pie-in-the-sky outlook without succumbing to complete passivity -- in other words, a perfect choice to play Irina.
Director Robin Stanton entrusts Lebahn with the play's (yes, moving) final monologue, a vision of a community where a theater production enters meaningfully into everyone's lives.
Part of Martin's message is that all of us play a part in the communal gathering that is, or should be, theater. At least some people are still buying tickets.
Anton pleads that more of us should buy into show business in the same way -- not just as shows full of flashing lights and Disney, but as serious business -- as transactions that require fundraising and underwriting and financial acumen, yes, but also as another, psychological kind of business: the serious activity of knowing ourselves, serving others, speculating about why we're here and how we must go on.
If only we could know.
Publication date: 03/13/03