This weekend, Fox will televise “American Idol,” V for Vendetta will open in movie theaters, Book of Maps will tear up a set at The Raven Cafe and, just as surely, less sociable eyes will be transfixed to video game consoles and Internet blogs for hours on end. There will be a lot of attention paid to things other than theater, and while all that’s transpiring, Montana Rep Missoula’s Anton in Show Business will be churning up the Crystal Theatre, wringing its hands and lamenting in hilarious self-reflection just how sad the current state of the stage has become.
The questions raised in Jane Martin’s script are alarmingly raw when you strip away the bitterly cynical humor: Is theater relevant anymore? With loyal post-World War II audiences dying off, who even cares? With so many financial, political and cultural pressures surrounding productions nowadays, is theater destined to crumble under the weight and become, as Anton suggests, an impossible mess and mockery of what it once was? With all these issues swirling around, what’s even left to make of contemporary theater? It’s enough uncertainty to make an aspiring artist learn right quick how to serve a latte, or, as one of the play’s characters contemplates, pursue a more grown-up career at a hardware store.
But Anton doesn’t find just humor in the otherwise depressing egos and idiots and naiveté that populate contemporary theater, though there are plenty of laughs here. It also keeps itself focused on the search for answers. Martin’s script, which was an instant hit when the play debuted in 2000, earning it a spot as a finalist for the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award, folds hope in with the sarcasm, and ends up showing by example how the craft can succeed.
Anton is a play about a play, a backstage pass to theater talking about theater. A small Missoula-based production company is staging Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and the play stars three actresses at distinctly different stages of their careers: Lisabette (Maria Giarrizzo), a young, God-fearing Anaconda girl who is wide-eyed and bursting with optimism after her first professional audition; Holly (Jillian Campana), a lusciously sexed-up television star selfishly pursuing legitimacy (and, via that, a shot at film); and Casey (Lindy Coon), the dry-witted veteran of off-off-Broadway who has seen and done it all, but never tasted fame or recognition. When the three are flown to Missoula for rehearsals, they’re surrounded by the rest of the misbegotten cast—played by three other women, each revolving through the other parts—including the clueless artistic director of the local theater company (Stacy Ohrt), the country-singing cowboy cast as the male lead (also Ohrt), the amoral suit from the big tobacco company supporting the production (Anita Anderson), and two different directors, one a militant African-American (Anderson) and the other a foreign sage (Teresa Waldorf).
The production of Three Sisters is flawed from the beginning, a rapid succession of errors and missteps reflecting all that’s affected modern theater—money, selfishness and so on. The commentary therein is similar to that in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Richard Sheridan’s The Critic, or, maybe more contemporarily, it’s like HBO’s “Entourage” mixed with the same network’s “Sex and the City” pretending to do a more acidic version of the community theater satire Waiting for Guffman. Anton is heavy with theater-muffin rhetoric and one-liners (Actor’s Equity is introduced as “the union that makes sure no more than 80 percent of its members are out of work at any time”), but it’s not so inside baseball as to fly over the heads of casual theatergoers. In fact, to help level the playing field—and to further poke fun at the art form—Anton’s final cast member is seated in the audience, a needling critic named Joby (Trena Fuller) who occasionally interrupts the play with challenging questions posed directly to the actors: “Isn’t that just a bit self-referential? You know, more theater about theater?”
It’s a fair question, and Martin—which, by the way, is a pen name that allows the veteran playwright continued access to such realistic dirt—answers it not by just successfully jabbing at theater, but addressing the very issues the play raises. It’s with this light-hearted poignancy that the comparison to Chekhov’s Three Sisters comes to light. In that classic, the sisters yearn to reach Moscow, where their fortunes will surely change. In Anton, the three leads hope to accomplish something onstage that qualifies as high art, which will surely launch or stabilize each of their careers. In both cases, these dreams prove elusive and it’s left to a closing monologue by the ever-hopeful Lisabette to place it all in perspective.
It’s hard to say if there’s a large audience for Anton in Missoula, where theatergoers have often tended to fit the stereotype portrayed in the play—mostly older with a select number of die-hards. But that demographic seems to be changing, expanding, and it’s against that promising backdrop that director Greg Johnson and his accomplished cast—consisting of three University of Montana drama professors—do their best in making Martin’s script applicable to the Garden City. There may be other attractions this weekend in Missoula, but for theater fans especially, none would appear to have the same compelling combination of immediacy, entertainment and reflection as Anton in Show Business.
Montana Rep Missoula’s Anton in Show Business plays through Saturday, March 18, at the Crystal Theatre at 8 PM. $10/$8 students.