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Through Anton's lens ... darkly

It is entirely within the normal scheme of things that a regional theater should stage a production of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." But in the hands of playwright Jane Martin, that workaday premise becomes a surprisingly funny, cranky, rather dark meditation on the state of American theater moving into the 21st century.

And self-referential. Did I mention it's self-referential?

It is also in the usual run of things for Southern Oregon University's Department of Theatre Arts to mount credible productions of challenging plays, student productions or not. And it did so again Friday night in opening its six-play 2009-2010 season with Martin's "Anton in Show Business," smartly directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's director of voice and text, Scott Kaiser.

Actor's Express, a little theater in San Antonio, Texas, is doing "Three Sisters," Chekhov's 1901 play about, uh, the search for meaning amid the decay of an aristocratic family in czarist Russia.

Auditioning for parts as the sisters are Lisabette (Lauryn Hochberg), a naive ingenue-type from Texas who studied acting but has been teaching elementary school, and Casey (Robyn Pucay), a 30something veteran of 200 off-off-Broadway roles who's never had one she's been paid for.

Already on board is Holly (Katie Torcom), a hot, surgically enhanced TV actress who calculates that a role in a highbrow stage play — far enough out in the boondocks that nobody will actually see her — will burnish her acting cred and help her make the jump to movies. Holly, who represents Hollywood ethics, which we are to understand is an oxymoron, tells Lisabette and Casey that she'll be playing Masha because "the most powerful person plays the best part."

There are parallels between our actresses and Chekhov's. Lisabette, who made her comeback in "Fiddler on the Roof," will play Irina, the naive youngest sister. Casey, who yearns for a paycheck to prove to her mother that acting is a real job, will play the older, spinsterish Olga.

As the business of producing a play gets under way, we meet a series of types: an arrogant English director, an incompetent producer, a cynical representative of a corporate underwriter (a tobacco company), an African-American director who wants to chuck the script and do Chekhov's play as a screed against American racism, a clueless clodhopper country music singer who plays the romantic lead.

There is even an unbearable critic. This one works for one of those free weekly shopping guides. Seated in the audience like Lloyd Dallas, the harried director of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," she rises in the middle of a rehearsal and begins hurling overwrought criticism at the actors.

"This is the whole problem with 20th-century theater," she says. "This is part of the reason nobody wants to buy a ticket. We used to get stories, now we get interpretations."

This is quite funny. It also has a large kernel of truth, and we feel that Jane Martin wasn't smiling when she wrote it. "Anton" itself is self-referential. Is Martin skewering overly precious theater, or creating it?

The usual backstage tropes are present here — crazy directors, power struggles, inter-cast affairs, money problems — but although "Anton" has laughs, it's not a lighthearted romp in the manner of "Noises Off" or "Bullets Over Broadway."

In the late, smart, very funny Canadian television series "Slings and Arrows," which was about the struggles of a large regional theater, an outre director named Darren Nichols dresses the actors for a production of "Romeo and Juliet" in cage-like costumes to present them as "signifiers." In moving counterpoint is artistic director Geoffrey Tennant's lyrical evocation of the nature of romantic love to a struggling actor.

"Anton" never gets to Geoffrey's side of things. There's no warm fuzzy here. The play's barbs are bitchy and Juvenalian and have a hint of bitterness in the finish.

Much like Chekhov, "Anton" is both tragic and comic, funny and sad. Like Chekhov's sisters, the actors don't grasp the system in which they are struggling. And like Chekhov characters, they search for meaning, generally without much success.

This "Anton" moves smartly on a minimal set, driven by competent performances from the three leads. Ten females play all the roles, including the male parts, as is the custom. In the end even the lead characters are cardboard cutouts, since Martin's subject is not three-dimensional humans but the American theater itself.

Jane Martin is the pen-name of a playwright widely believed to be retired Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Jon Jory, who has directed the premieres of Martin's shows, including "Anton," and accepted awards on Martin's behalf. The play had its premiere not long before Jory stepped down from the artistic leadership of his theater and has the feel of a bittersweet valedictory.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.