Saturday, January 26, 2008
Anton at 6th @ Penn: A Theatrical Delight
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Anton in Show Business — that’s “Anton” as in “Chekhov,” by the way — at 6th @ Penn is a total delight, a great comedy that doesn’t break much new ground in its spoofing of the theatre business but manages an artful combination of the stereotypes and clichés that makes you laugh along the way until it builds to a surprisingly poignant ending. Premiered at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky and credited to a mysterious author called “Jane Martin” — more on that later — Anton in Show Business tells the story of an ill-fated production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at a theatre called “Actors Express” in San Antonio, Texas.
The three sisters themselves are played by an intriguing trio of actresses, two of whom are cast at an open audition in New York while the third provides the star power needed to get the show on in the first place. The star is Holly (DeAnna Driscoll), who’s trying to grow her career beyond the Sex and the City-style sitcom she’s on to establish herself as a Serious Actress so she can get film roles (maybe, she ruefully muses at one point, film roles that will actually let her keep her clothes on throughout). On a whim, she insists that two actors who are catching a hard time from an egomaniac British director (Kelly Lapczynski) be cast as her co-stars. One of these is Lizabette (Aimee Janelle Nelson), a Kristen Chenoweth-type Texas transplant who gave up a gig as a third-grade teacher to come to New York and try for stage stardom. The other is Casey (Robin Christ), a hard-bitten veteran performer and cancer survivor who’s all too aware that she’s been around so long the only role she can hope for is Olga, oldest and homeliest of the sisters.
The dramatis personae also include two more egomaniac directors, a Black militant named Andwyeth (Cashae Monya) who replaces the Brit and wants to throw out the Chekhov script and remodel the play as a racial melodrama; and Wikewich (also Kelly Lapczynski), a Polish émigré with a thick accent and an even thicker conception of the play which he isn’t sure his cast is able to “get.” There’s also a producer who has her own ego trip going — she takes up hours at rehearsal to discuss her own childhood — and Ben (Patricia Elmore Costa), a country-music star whom Holly is determined to seduce away from his wife and children just to prove she can. (In honor of this plot development, the first act ends with Hank Williams’ classic record “Your Cheatin’ Heart” played as the exit music.) Also in the mix is Don Blount (also Cashae Monya), the tobacco company executive who wrote the check to supply the financial backing for the production and who resents it when Casey goes on a tear about how his company is merchandising death — then begs him for another pack of cigarettes since she, a compulsive smoker, has run out.
Anton in Show Business is built around two gimmicks that add piquancy to its set of familiar “backstage” characters and situations. One is that it’s written for an all-female cast even though its characters are both men and women — and rather than being done subtly to make some sort of broader point about gender roles, the cross-gender casting is so obvious there isn’t even any attempt to make the women look credible as men when they’re playing them. The other is that Martin has answered all our possible objections to the play — that it’s too gimmicky, too stereotyped, too theatrical, too self-referential, too cut off from the world outside the theatre — in advance, by putting them in the mouth of Joby (Morgan Trant), a character who speaks from the audience and heckles the onstage characters at critical moments.
Yes, this play is self-referential; it not only is theatre, it’s about theatre and doesn’t pretend to be anything beyond what it is. It’s also aimed at an audience that truly cares about the theatre and its supposed decline. Nobody goes to a house like 6th @ Penn and watches plays in a space the size of a large living room if they don’t care about theatre itself on a level beyond their interest or attachment to any specific play. A company like 6th @ Penn finds its natural market niche among people who believe that, despite all the marvelous technological advances that have brought us movies, records, radio, TV and now the glorified home movies of Internet sites like YouTube, the best way to be entertained is still to have the people who are entertaining you right there before you “in fhe flesh,” as it were, breathing the same air you are and talking with nothing but the lung power God, nature or the gene pool gave them.
There’s a mystery surrounding the playwright of record, “Jane Martin,” by the way. Though she’s been writing plays since 1982, when the Louisville theatre premiered a series of her monologues under the title Talking With … , no one outside the theatre has ever seen, heard or spoken to her. She has never spoken in public or given an interview. No biographical details have ever been published and no photos of her are known to exist. She’s won prestigious awards and cash prizes for her work, but surrogates have always accepted the awards for her. One widely held belief is that “Martin” is actually Jon Jory, who was artistic director of the Actors Theatre in Louisville until he retired in 2000 after directing the world premiere of Anton (and whose father, Victor Jory, was a veteran actor in Hollywood whose best-known credits were as the overseer Jonas Wilkerson in Gone With the Wind and Helen Keller’s father in The Miracle Worker).
Jory has always denied it, saying, “Whoever writes these plays feels that they would be unable to write them if (their identity) was made public knowledge.” But after Anton premiered and showed an intimate working knowledge of small theatre and the perils of running one, some critics were more convinced than ever that “Martin” was either Jory writing solo or he and his wife, Marcia Dixey, in collaboration.
Nonetheless, whoever wrote Anton in Show Business can feel proud of how 6th @ Penn has staged it. The company’s artistic head, Dale Morris, has handled the direction personally and done a wonderful job maintaining the timing comedy needs to succeed. He’s also got some first-rate performances from his cast, especially Christ, who brings her hard-bitten, seen-it-all character to vivid life. Nelson as Lizabette is a bit too chipper for her own good — though at the end she sounds depths her previously (and deliberately) superficial performance haven’t led us to expect — and Driscoll has the charisma to convince us she’s the spoiled diva and the acting chops to make us feel sorry for her. Costa’s Ben, despite the on-purpose ludicrousness of her “masculine” get-up, also brings real pathos to the character.
The set, also designed by Morris, is simple but effective and is given scope by the marvelous murals by Valentine Viannay that hang on either side of the theatre, one representing New York and one representing Hollywood — with the San Antonio setting of the main action not only geographically but philosophically and ideologically “in between.” The technical team members keep their work unobtrusive throughout but Jamie Lloyd’s costumes and Mitchell Simkovski’s lights are simple, straightforward and sum up the characters. 6th @ Penn has picked a good script and done it justice, creating a production that everyone who loves theatre — especially small-scale independent theatre — should see.
Anton in Show Business runs through Sunday, March 2 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and other information, call (619) 688-9210 or visit www.sixthatpenn.com
PHOTO: Back row: Julia Hoover - Kelly Lapzcynski
Middle Row: Morgan Trant - Cashae Monya - Patricia Elmore Costa
Front Row: Robin Christ - DeAnna Driscoll - Aimee Janelle Nelson
Photo credit: Paul Savage, www.savages4hire.com