‘Anton in Show Business’: Funny, tragic and thought-provoking

Napa Valley Register Review, Dan Monez, May 18, 2017

An estimated 80 percent of the roles in American theater are men. Even more astounding is that of the 20 percent of roles that are female, 95 percent of those are women under 40.

There lies the impetus for the formation of the Napa Valley’s newest theater company, Valley Players and their recent production, “Anton in Show Business.”

Formed by several Dreamweavers alumni, three of whom are in this cast, (June Alane Reif, Debbie Baumann, and Patt Quinn), Valley Players’ mission is to produce quality live theater featuring significant roles for women over 40. The president of the company, Reif, said, “We are not excluding men or younger women but want to select plays that can feature women our age.” It makes perfect sense since women over 40 make up the majority of theater audiences today.

Jane Martin’s “Anton in Show Business” pokes fun, sometimes harshly, at theater in America. It is a comedy and there are good laughs throughout, but it is also brutally honest at exposing the reasons for the opening line, “The American Theatre’s in a s—tload of trouble.”

The play is about a regional theater company trying to produce the Anton Chekhov play, “Three Sisters.” As the play progresses through the audition process and early rehearsals, the audience gets a “fly on the wall” eyeful of what goes on leading up to opening night. Exaggerated, yes, stereotypical characters, yes, but at its core is the truth that every actor, director, and producer knows.

Amid the satire of theater is a warm and somewhat tragic story of the three actresses who play the sisters in the play within the play. All three are well written and well acted.

Reif plays Casey, a woman who has done more than 200 plays without once being paid and who for many reasons, is a mess, but still has hope. Reif is one of the most natural and versatile actors in the North Bay and offers us a genuine person in her portrayal of Casey.

Baumann plays Holly, a popular TV star who has her own show but needs to do a serious classical stage play soon so she can gain respect and land a film role before she is too old. I have seen Baumann and worked with her on stage for many years, and I think this was her finest acting to date. She made her diva character human and although Holly is selfish and ruthless, Baumann makes us care about her.

The third sister, Lisabette, is played by Quinn. Quinn is a good comedic actor, but I was most impressed with her last monologue in which she dropped all the affectations she manifested earlier and became human and lovable as she talked to the audience about her life and her hopes. She and we would be well served to see her in more roles like that.

The other characters are really caricatures rather than fully formed characters with the exception of the producer, Kate, played by Sandra Lovelace. Lovelace is a relative newcomer to the stage and she performed impeccably. She has a powerful stage presence and commands our attention.

Bonnie Gamble played at least three male characters all with different accents and demeanors and was brilliant in all three.

Carlet Langford played four or five characters and served as our narrator. She was good in all but stood out as Andwynneth, an urban black theater director who decides she is not going to use the script for Chekhov’s play but will make it social commentary on race, poverty, and power. Her timing was spot on and her longer speeches were delivered with passion, anger, and almost sounded like rap at times.

Amy Soriano-Palagi played the incredulous audience critic to the hilt, and her timing was critical and never missed a beat .

Maybe the most difficult caricature to carry off is a woman playing a male cowboy. Michelle Domingo pulled it off very believably. The walk, the sit, the posture and the mannerisms all read male cowboy.

Finally, Bob Silva, David Holmes, Devin Leaman, and Paul Marciniak played stage hands who appeared on stage delivering props on cue and acting as living furniture.

The play was directed by Megan Palagi. I mentioned several times that an actor’s timing was perfect. That is a part of good actor’s skill set, but is usually the result of a good director. The pace was nice and brisk, the staging was innovative but simple, and it all lead to a thought-provoking, effective production. It was, as one of the characters described Checkhov, “funny, funny, funny, funny, tragic!”

“Anton in Show Business” ran three nights at Lincoln Theater and three nights in Vallejo at Bay Area Stage and is now closed. For more information on coming attractions for Valley Players, go to their website http://www.valley-players.com/. This writer thinks they will be a powerful influence on the Napa arts scene.