“Anton in Show Business”

Play:        “Anton in Show Business”

Group:        St. Louis Shakespeare

Venue:        Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square

Dates:        August 12, 13, 14, 15

Tickets:    From $15 to $25; contact 314-361-5664 or www.stlshakespeare.org

Story:    Lisabette, an aspiring young actress from Texas, musters up the courage to quit her job as a teacher and leave the Lone Star State for the bright lights and scary prospects of Broadway.  She happens upon an audition for a production of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” which is being prepped for an out-of-town presentation in San Antonio.  At the audition she meets famous TV actress Holly and jaded theater veteran Casey, who has appeared in more than 200 productions and still struggles to make the rent.

    Holly has been told she needs work in legitimate theater to add ballast to her resume as a sexy TV starlet, an occupation bolstered by multiple trips to the plastic surgeon.  Casey has grown used to being called “plain,” and accepts that she’ll likely be cast as Olga, the spinsterish eldest sister in Chekhov’s master work about the frustrated lives of three educated young women in early 20th century Russia.  Holly, aware of her ‘star’ value for the production, wants the role of the spirited Masha and dictates that Lisabette will take the part of youthful Irina.  This disparate trio, along with a nervous assistant director, a gruff director, a meddling sponsor and a money-conscious producer, attempt to piece together a work of art that will bring each satisfaction.

Highlights:    The mysterious Jane Martin, often heard about but never seen, has written several plays that were performed at the renowned Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville under the auspices of Jon Jory, long-time producing director of the Actors Theater of Louisville.  This is one of Martin’s finest, a richly textured, layered look at a play-within-a-play as well as the art and relevancy of live performance itself.  Included among the characters, of both genders but all played by women, is a self-serving critic who speaks out frequently from the audience, challenging the performers while voicing her own uncertainties out loud.

    Intriguing and beguiling in its multi-level story-telling, “Anton” is given an intelligent, amusing and compelling reading by St. Louis Shakespeare under the astute guidance of director Carolyne Hood.  An expert at interpretation, Hood carefully moves her disciplined players through their elegant paces as they keep this mysterious work turning as briskly as the turnstiles at a Texas rodeo.  The result is a sophisticated and highly satisfying romp for the audience.

Other Info:    It’s hard to know where to begin with the clever cast, but Andra Harkins is a good starting point.  She plays the roles of male directors in appropriately manly fashion, not just in her speech but in her gait and demeanor, as well as the way the clothes so expertly selected by costume designer Jennifer ‘JC’ Krajicek have a masculine ‘fit’ on her.  Equally impressive is Nicole Angeli, whose comic timing accentuates her role as the timid and loyal assistant director, while her dramatic talents are evident in the part of  an aw-shucks country music star who falls under the sway of the cocky Holly.

    Amy Kelly handsomely fills the bill as the world-weary Casey, who years ago escaped a life in the family hardware business but has yet to know financial security in her chosen profession and who has battled bouts of cancer for too long.  As Lisabette, Gabrielle Greer is agreeably spunky, naïve and eternally optimistic, despite a personal quirk which sets her back in social settings.  Sabra Sellers effectively captures the vapid self-interest of Holly, always expecting to get her way while grooming herself for her big movie break.  Andrea Purnell is engaging in a number of flamboyant supporting roles, while Maggie Murphy does well as the rude and persistent junior-grade critic.

    Cristie Johnston’s whimsical set design favors a cartoonish, retro style of background boards, smoothly illuminated with Natalie Smith’s lights, and Krajicek’s costumes are a delight, including Lisabette’s perky pieces.  Andria Mantle provides some clever props to add to the overall effect.  A real highlight is Jeff Roberts’ good-natured sound design, which ranges from Roy Orbison to Olivia Newton-John to unexpected, down-home renditions of “Fever” and “Dancing Queen,” all immeasurably enhancing the production.

    There’s considerably more to “Anton in Show Business” than you might first expect, and all of it is available for perusal and rumination in this engaging show.

Rating:    A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.