Toward the end of Anton in Show Business, a character shares a moving story about a community production of A Raisin in the Sun.
She describes how each evening, the actors would come from their day jobs to rehearse, and how the doors of the community center would be left open; people from the neighborhood would come in to watch. They would bring food, and their children would play in the seats; each night, actors and audience members would walk together back to their homes, having grown closer for the experience. It's a beautiful vision of what we hope to experience when we go to the theater.
It is difficult to imagine two more divergent roads to this place than Sacred Chicken Productions' Anton in Show Business, and Seascape, at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company.
Seascape, a 1975 play by Edward Albee, tries to reach its audience through poetry and symbolism. Nancy and Charlie have had children, grandchildren and rich lives together, and they now find themselves at the edge of old age. Picnicking on a bluff overlooking the sea, they ponder their future. Nancy wants to travel with her husband from beach to beach for the rest of their lives, and hopes that someday, they'll die simultaneously. However, Charlie wants to rest. He's happy to do nothing, a thought that horrifies his wife: Is that what we spent all of our lives for? For nothing?
The two are forced to look past their petty squabbles when they're unexpectedly confronted with a pair of large lizards—English-speaking lizards, no less—who've just emerged from the sea and are on the cusp of evolving. The lizards, named Sarah and Leslie, take in all the wonders of life on land, and Nancy and Charlie must explain to them, and to themselves as well, why being human is worth the uncertainty and pain.
With human and reptile characters sharing the stage, director Michael Fenlason leads his cast through two distinct styles of acting. Roxanne Harley and Roger Owen portray Nancy and Charlie naturalistically, displaying the comfortable familiarity of two people who have shared a lifetime. Both do an admirable job of speaking through Albee's elliptical dialogue as they lounge across Jared Strickland's beautiful beach-panorama set. On the night I attended, Owen was ill and struggled with his lines in the second act—an easily forgiven shortcoming, considering he was onstage and speaking for the length of the play. Unfortunately, during those few moments, the focus was on the words themselves, and it was the only time that the threads of character and subtext that hold the play together became unclear.
In contrast to the humans' naturalism, Ericka Quintero and Todd Fitzpatrick play the lizards with striking physicality, injecting the play with a jolt of life. As they scramble across the rocks in Kristen Wheeler's lizard-skin costumes, the reptilian details of their movement and the curious, alien delivery of their lines make their performances both surreal and grounded in reality.
Seascape has plenty of humor, but overall, the tone is elegiac, and the small cast and single location gradually make the passing of time itself feel like a tangible, meaningful presence.
Anton in Show Business, on the other hand, is more like a cream pie in the kisser. Satiric, slap-dash and so self-aware that it's practically cross-eyed, Anton reaches out to its audience with enough laughs that you might just (in the words of one character) "tiddly pee."
Playing fast and loose with the plot of Anton Chekhov's play The Three Sisters, Anton replaces the sisters with three theater-world caricatures: Lisabette, the wide-eyed hick who's always wanted to act; Casey, the jaded New York theater veteran who has acted for 20 years without pay; and Holly, the no-talent Hollywood starlet who wants to polish her résumé with a live performance of a Classic with a capital C.
They are all cast in a San Antonio production of (you guessed it) Chekhov's The Three Sisters, helmed by a series of absurd directors at a theater where the mission statement is expressed in gestures and grunts.
With a set composed of movable blocks and uneven lighting at the Cabaret Theatre, this show embraces its low-fi aesthetic. Under director Cynthia Jeffery, the funhouse pacing is occasionally off, and scene changes in the second act begin to drag. But she has led her cast to inhabit their roles as if born into them.
Rhonda Hallquist gives Casey the New Yorker the perfect balance of hope and world-weariness. As Holly the starlet, Carrie Hill effortlessly charms everyone around her and then mops the floor with them. Toni Press-Coffman plays an otherworldly artistic director with too much familiarity not to have spent time with the character's real-world counterparts. Holli Henderson, as an opinion-spouting everyperson, provides a spark that helps bring the play to life. Peg Peterson, T Loving and Carlisle Ellis cover all of the male roles, a choice explained within the play as both making up for and satirizing the lack of stage roles for women.
Special mention should be given to Elizabeth Leadon as the hayseed Lisabette. A loose-limbed, comic scarecrow who practically radiates goodwill, Lisabette is played without a hint of self-parody. It's impossible not to love a character who so wholeheartedly believes in the goodness of everyone around her.
That quality is needed in a play that, in the end, seems to have no heart of its own—it can't believe in anything, because everything is a target for its satire. With half-hearted gestures toward real emotion or deeper meaning, playwright Jane Martin is unable to resist skewering even the play itself without mercy.
Does a play really need to "mean something," or can it just be funny? Should it aim for your gut, or try to touch your heart and your mind, too? Questions like these are what lead us to join in an audience of like-minded seekers.
Neither play is likely to please everyone, but both have their doors open to welcome in their community.