When I saw the world premiere of “Anton in Show Business” back in 2000 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, it seemed like extreme inside baseball.
No, you didn’t need to be a card-carrying theater junkie to follow the plot about a trio of actresses cast in a Texas production of “The Three Sisters.” But text seemed aimed squarely at those in or orbiting close to theater’s epicenter. While the play was certainly entertaining, I wondered whether such navel-gazing was simply, cockily, biting the hand that was feeding its creators.
Twenty one years, in the capable hands of Betty Rage Productions, Callie Burk-Hartz’s rebirthed production company, the play feels, oddly, more vital, sad, and funny.
Of course, the fact that I’m now 21 years older — and have seen 21 more years of theater — could also factor in. And the increased fragility of live theater thanks to the pandemic certainly infuses this production.
Plot? Holly Seabe (Devan Mathias) is a shallow TV star looking for credibility that might get her a feature film. She opts in — and takes casting control — of the aforementioned regional theater production. Even though their auditions were less than stellar, naïve local Lisabette Cartwright (Sarah Zimmerman) and off-off-Broadway-hardened Casey Mulgraw (Meg Elliot McLane) get Holly’s seal of approval rounding out the Chekhov sisterhood.
Playing various directors — who last about as long as Spinal Tap drummers — and other spokes in the theatrical wheel are Kelsey Van Voorst, Tracy Herring, and Jamillah Gonzalez, with Audrey Stonerock chiming in as an interrupter in the audience.
While the core situation is difficult to believe, the joy is in the details and the actors find humanity inside what could be caricatures. That’s essential here, especially at the end of the play when the connection to Chekhov is firmly fused.
Not that you have to know Chekhov to get it.
The play is credited to Jane Martin, a theatrical pseudonym whose alter ego is assumed to be, well, I shouldn’t say. Google if you are curious. Martin’s original has been tweaked here with some fresh references and contexts which work well. I don’t know if the pineapple bit was Martin’s or a Burk-Hartz idea but, whatever the case, it had me giggling at one of the show’s goofier moments.
It takes skill — both from a writer and from a production team — to navigate a course that mixes such silliness with sharp satire and moments of honest humanity. And the Betty Rage team pulls it off.
A fellow audience member — a local theater professional — noted at intermission that she felt both attacked and seen by the play.
I agreed. “Anton” cuts deep while also offering a warm blanket. It presents theater as both an insane proposition and a balm. It’s equally absurd for producers, directors, funders, critics, actors and audiences to be involved in.
Yet here we are, on a beautiful summer night.
Like much of the theater we are likely to have access to over the next few months (and possibly longer if you don’t get your damn vaccination and wear a mask), audiences checking out “Anton in Show Business” should put aside any expectations of slickness when it comes to sets and lighting. In our current question-mark-filled landscape, you’d be setting yourself up for disappointment if you are looking for technical polish.
Me, I’m satisfied when theater offers these three siblings: quality words, committed acting, and smart direction.
“Anton in Show Business” is being presented through August 7 at the District Theatre’s Outback outdoor space.
No, you can’t order a Bloomin’ Onion. That’s the other Outback.
Tickets are $15.