By John Lyle Belden
Meta (noun): Of a creative work, referring to itself, or to the conventions of the genre; self referential.
Why am I even doing this? I mean, the play, “Anton in Show Business,” even includes its own review. Just pay attention late in the second act; it’s right there. Nothing I need to add.
If you are in the Indianapolis theatre community, you’ve likely already heard about it, produced by the resurrected Betty Rage Productions and directed by its founder, Callie Burk-Hartz. We all know and love Callie, and she is on her game here. She even put it at the same address as her last Betty show, 627 Massachusetts Ave. – TOTS back then, now the District Theatre – “Outback” on the nice alley stage.
The 2000 play by Jane Martin takes its inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” written 100 years earlier. With more than a dozen roles played by seven women, the plot involves an effort to stage a version of the Russian’s downer drama that is, as one character puts it, “funny, funny, funny, funny, FUNNY, tragic.”
And if you are in the theatre community, you will love this. The cynical backstage dealings, egos, virtue-signaling, politics, etc., make this one of the best send-ups of regional and community theatre culture since “Waiting for Guffman.” If you aren’t on the “inside,” well, you liked “Guffman,” right? And did I mention this is FUNNY?
Devan Mathias plays TV star Holly Seabe (cast as Masha, I’ll note for Chekhov fans) as that actress you hate-watch but with slightly more talent and maybe a hint of humanity. Meg Ellioy McLane is struggling stage veteran Casey Mulgraw (Olga) trying to stay positive despite her lack of a big break, and that lump she just detected… Sarah Zimmerman is impossibly-sweet and eager Lisabette Cartwright (Irina), an elementary teacher in her first professional role, bringing her back to her native Texas, “Pardon me, Jesus.”
Comic chameleon Kelsey Van Voorst gets a workout here in roles including Actors Express of San Antonio Producing Director (and idealistic Chekhov fan) Kate, and country star-turned-actor Ben Shipwright (Lt. Col. Vershinin). She shows her drama chops by handling the comic beats without getting silly. Tracy Herring gives us her wild take on not one, but two different eccentric directors. Jamillah Gonzalez has her run of the stage as the obligatory Stage Manager/Narrator, as well as a prospective play director and the morally bankrupt Corporate Sponsor. And then there is Audrey Stonerock as Joby, who is literally the audience proxy – but she means well, and we like Audrey, who is nice both in and out of character.
All this, in a play about putting on a play, and how we observe that play, so that it knows it’s a play about players in a play putting on a play, and how the players get played. Play on!
Yes, this show is just as sharp, insightful and funny as it says it is. They even slipped in a couple of updated cultural references. Performances run through August 8; get tickets at indydistricttheatre.org.