Monday, September 6, 2010

Rehearsing For Real Life

Ever since Hamlet predicted that "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King," screenwriters and playwrights have looked to backstage conflicts as a source of comedy and drama. The wealth of oversized egos, emotional insecurity, professional backstabbing, and unrealistic expectations that can often be found backstage has never failed to inspire writers. Consider the following:
Two small theatre companies in the East Bay are currently presenting plays in which the choices being made during the rehearsal process can be as painful (or hilarious) as the choices we face in life. Both productions are blessed with strong ensembles that do their playwrights proud.

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Those familiar with Slings and Arrows, the hilarious Canadian television series that took place at The New Burbage Festival (a fictional nonprofit Shakespeare festival experiencing financial problems while being haunted by the ghost of  the company's founding artistic director) won't want to miss a chance to see Anton in Show Business. Jane Martin's tart comedy about the realities of life in the theatre just opened the season for TheaterFIRST (which performs in the black box theatre in the same building that houses Oakland's newly-restored Fox Theatre and the Oakland School for the Arts).

The winner of the 2001 American Theatre Critics Association's Steinberg New Play Award, Anton in Show Business depicts what happens when a small regional theatre company attempts to cast and stage Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. All roles (regardless of gender) are performed by women.

Holly (Josie Alvarez), Casey (Beth Deitchman) and
 Lisabette (Megan Briggs) in Anton in Show Business
Anton in Show Business is so well written that you won't have to know a thing about Three Sisters in order to laugh your way through the evening. The writing is sharp, knowing, and cuts to the quick (Jane Martin is rumored to be the nom de plume of John Jory, the former Artistic Director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville). The key roles are:
  • T-Anne, the stage manager for a small theatre in New York where Kate and Ralph are holding a casting call for Three Sisters. T-Anne is not impressed by actors. T-Anne is not impressed by anybody.
  • Holly Seabé, a young woman of devastating beauty who has become a television star. Although her resume is extremely light (Holly got fired from a porn film because she actually cried when she had her first orgasm), she knows how to throw her weight around and make people pay for any perceived insults.
  • Lisabette Cartwright, a drama major from La Vernia, Texas who, after graduating from Southern Methodist University (SMU), promptly started teaching third grade at Maple Elementary School. Lisabette, who likes to give Jesus credit where credit is due, has decided to go for the big magical moment that she's heard can be found onstage.
  • Casey Mulgraw, an actress in her late 30s who is known as the Queen of Off-Off-Broadway. A cancer survivor, Casey has performed in over 200 productions where -- although she's always managed to have sex with someone in the cast -- she has never been paid to act..
  • Joby, a recent graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Dramaturgy who has been given a chance to write a 100-word review of Three Sisters for a San Antonio shopping guide
  • Kate, an overeducated graduate of Harvard, Stanford, and Yale who has become the artistic director of the San Antonio Actors Express. Kate is currently producing Three Sisters.
  • Ralph Brightly, a Quentin Crisp-like stage director. The epitome of a limp-wristed, fey Brit.
Amaka Izuchi and Phoebe Moyer in Anton in Show Business
  • Andwyneth Wyoré, an African American stage director Kate has hired to replace Ralph after he is summarily fired by Holly.
  • Jackey, the extremely effeminate wardrobe master for San Antonio Actors Express
  • Ben Shipwright, the butch cowboy playing the role of Vershinin who falls for Holly, leaves his wife and kids, but gets humped and dumped as soon as Holly gets an offer to be in a Hollywood film.
  • Wikéwitch, the Russian stage director hired by Kate to replace Andwyneth after she leaves the production in a huff.
  • Don Blount, the regional director of corporate philanthropy for a large tobacco company.
  • Joe Bob, the Texas "good ol' boy" who tells Kate why he's so happy that her theatre company has lost its funding.
Amaka Iuzchi as Don Blount in Anton in Show Business
TheatreFIRST's artistic director, Michael Storm (who directed the production), notes that:
"Anton in Show Business is a terrific play. There are many reasons to produce it, not the least of which is that it is a great play for women. But beyond that (and perhaps most important) is that it speaks to the business of theatre overall, including the lack of roles for women. Anton in Show Business is a great way to help inform our audience about the business of theatre and a great way to laugh at ourselves. I think this is important because I'm constantly amazed at how little people know about a life in the theatre."
Storm's ensemble delivered some exceptionally fine work. I was particularly impressed by Josie Alvarez (Holly), Shannon Veon Kase (Kate, Jackey, and Ben), and Amaka Izuchi (T-Anne, Andwyneth, and Don Blount). Phoebe Strong's superb portrayals of Ralph Brightly, Wikéwitch, and Joe Bob were right on the mark.

Anton in Show Business continues through September 26 at the Marion E. Greene Black Box Theatre. I had a rollicking good time and so will you. Order your tickets here.

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Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company launched its season with a new production of  Trouble In Mind, a provocative drama by Alice Childress that takes place in 1957 during rehearsals for a new play entitled Chaos in Belleville. Although it has been written by a white playwright and is being directed by a white stage director, Chaos in Belleville deals with a Southern lynching party in ways that don't ring true to the African American actors in its cast. Their discomfort with the play's text sounds surprisingly similar to what Melissa McEwan recently wrote on her political blog, Shakesville:
"The president's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is very white, very male, and very terrifying. I just bipartisaned in my pants."
Most of the black characters in Trouble in Mind have spent their careers playing stereotypes of black maids, nannies, and lazy, shiftless, no-good husbands because the competition -- even for such demeaning roles -- was so fierce. They include:
  • John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry), an idealistic young black actor who thinks the world is his oyster.
  • Millie Davis (Elizabeth Carter), a black actress who has made her living playing nannies and maids despite having graduated from the Yale School of Drama. Her husband, a railroad porter, would prefer that Millie not work.
  • Sheldon Forrester (Rhonnie Washington), an older black actor who long ago learned how to compromise and give "the man" what he wants.
  • Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall), an established black actress who has previously worked with the man who will be directing Chaos in Belleville (her Broadway debut). Wiletta never had any formal training as an actor. Over the years she has learned how to kiss up to white men who can get her work. The role of a mother who willingly turns her son over to a lynch mob is forcing Wiletta into a crisis of conscience.
Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall) wrestles with her conscience
in Trouble In Mind (Photo by: David Allen)
The white characters in Trouble in Mind include:
  • Henry (Earl Kingston), the 78-year-old partly deaf stage doorman whose Irish father performed in vaudeville. Like the circus employee who sweeps up elephant droppings, Henry couldn't conceive of leaving show business.
  • Judy Sears (Melissa Quine), an aspiring young actress from Bridgeport, Connecticut who doesn't understand many of the racist realities for black actors.
  • Bill O'Wray (Michael Ray Wisely), a white actor who gets plenty of employment but suffers from an ulcer. For personal reasons, Bill has avoided dining with the rest of the cast.
  • Al Manners (Tim Kniffin), a liberal white stage director who is forced to confront his own hypocrisy.
  • Eddie Fenton (Patrick Russell), the director's assistant.
Much of Trouble in Mind involves a tug of war between the director and his star. Wiletta has always served up the stereotypes that pleased white theatregoers but, after having a friend from church read the script to Chaos in Belleville, she is convinced there is something wrong with the writing. Although she has worked with Al Manners before, she has grown weary of the way he makes fancy speeches about wanting to hear what the actors are thinking when, in all truth, he couldn't care less. She has become increasingly aware of the way he trivializes any of her contributions.

Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall) lock horns
in Trouble In Mind (Photo by: David Allen)
Al, however, is trying to keep Wiletta from rewriting the script to suit her concept of her character. At an explosive moment, Al reveals his true feelings in a way that shatters any chance of maintaining a tightly-knit ensemble.

Tightly directed by Robin Stanton and beautifully lit by Kurt Landisman, this production of Trouble In Mind is worth seeing for Margo Hall's magnificent performance as Wiletta. The writing is strong, refreshing, and reminds modern audiences how much things have changed since the 1950s (In 1952, Childress became the first African American woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage).

In all truth, Alice Childress never intended to become a writer. Later in life, she relished the irony of her career as she reminded people that:
"African Americans are the only racial group within the United States ever forbidden by law to read and write. There aren't any black critics who can close a white play. But in black theatre, black experience has been fought against by white critics. The white critic feels no obligation to prepare himself to judge a black play."
Trouble in Mind continues at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley through September 26. You can order tickets here.

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