Forced Labor 

Strong scripts, mixed performances mark two current local theater productions

Strong scripts, mixed performances mark two current local theater productions

ART

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Through May 26 in TPAC’s Johnson Theater

Anton in Show Business

Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble

Through May 20 at Vanderbilt’s St. Augustine’s Chapel

Actors Equity Association (AEA), the labor union for stage actors, boasts a membership of close to 40,000 according to the most recent statistics. Of this number, the union states that only 15.6 percent are employed in any given week, and only 44.7 percent worked at all in 1999-2000. This would leave one to believe, then, that a minimum of 17,000 male actors in the U.S. would have been available to take the three roles in ART, the current production at Tennessee Repertory Theatre. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a bit odd that two of the roles in Yasmina Reza’s 1998 Tony Award-winning comedy would be usurped by the two artistic executives of the company, David Grapes and Todd Olson.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with them both stepping into the spotlight—they belong to AEA, after all—but one has to wonder why, with all the available actors in the country, they couldn’t have brought in possibly lesser-known but more appropriately gifted pros who would have been more comfortable with the roles at hand. There are a few actors right here in Nashville who would better suit this play’s urbane sophistication.

With the exception of Santaland Diaries, this is the only Rep production this season not to be directed by Grapes/Olson. That chore has fallen to Brant L. Pope, associate artistic director of Florida’s Asolo Theatre Company. Overall, Pope does a pretty good job. He keeps the show on pace, the blocking seems generally sound, and there are funny bits intermingled with the many moments of intense dialogue. But one wishes Mr. Pope had stronger horses to pull his wagon.

ART concerns three longtime friends, Marc, Serge, and Ivan. Serge has recently purchased a painting for $200,000. He unveils it to Marc with great glee and relish: a 4-by-5-foot canvas that is pure white. After laughing at the folly of it all, Marc begins to realize that Serge actually regards the piece as high art. A tense argument ensues. They eventually bring in their wishy-washy friend Ivan to settle the dispute.

This situation becomes the catalyst for an evening of scenes among the men, in which their friendship is examined, tested, and examined some more, with their views on what is (or isn’t) art serving as the metaphorical grounding wire for their feelings. Reza’s script is well-written, dotted with good humor, and makes clever use of its art/friendship theme. It also gives the Rep’s Gary C. Hoff a chance to design a snappy and versatile modern New York City apartment setting. Everything’s in place for an interesting evening of theater, and, in fact, the first 30 minutes are thoroughly enjoyable. The actors don’t sustain, however, and the show seems to be missing a kind of Noel Coward élan that would boost its potential to entertain.

Robert Bartley—an AEA full-time actor—is Serge. Bartley wowed Nashville earlier this season as Mordred in the Rep’s production of Camelot. He’s not as good here, though he has skills and looks comfortable in the Manhattan milieu. As the nebbishy Ivan, Olson manages to get his share of laughs, in particular with one long, seemingly endless, breathless speech. Olson’s readings are otherwise intelligent, though it’s hard to see that he’s really created a character of any depth. Grapes, in the pivotal role of Marc, also approaches his performance in a carefully thought-out way. The results are mixed at best. He gets out of the starting blocks well enough, but this show revolves in large part around his character’s dour, cynical worldview. The more Grapes pushes it, the more ineffectual he becomes, and at some point we stop caring about his angst.

The 2000-2001 Rep season that started with the bang of WIT last September ends, alas, on a bit of a whimper. Like too many Rep offerings this year, it just seems as if ART should have been better.

Strangely enough, the issue of out-of-work actors—and a wealth of other theater-related matters—is on the table in Actors Bridge Ensemble’s new production of Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business. The hit play of the 2000 Humana Festival at Louisville’s Actors Theatre, Anton is a consistently smart and self-aware script, which, despite its insider’s take on the state of modern theater, is nonetheless fully accessible.

Two actresses are plucked by a third—a young, TV-rich bimbo trying to boost her career status—to co-star in a production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters in San Antonio, Texas. There is the requisite built-in humor here with regard to “dumb Southerners” doing classic drama. But in broader terms, Martin’s script is a kind of ironic love letter to the theater itself.

Bill Feehely’s direction is surehanded throughout. Scenes move at a generally brisk clip, the actors share a unity of purpose, and Martin’s incisive writing is a joy to experience. Even the cleanly executed scene changes have some entertainment value, because they’re done with a wink and a nod. As to the performances by the all-female cast (playing male and female roles), some are really good. Others have problems that prevent Anton from dazzling us.

Leading the charge is Tara Lacey, whose turn as the drawling, starstruck actress Lisabette Cartwright is simply delightful. Lacey possesses an animated face, a distinctive voice, and a natural theatricality that are impossible to ignore. Not far behind is Rachel Agee, the company’s larger-than-life resident comedienne, who deftly creates two very funny characters. Vali Forrister, Linda Speir, and Jane Stoub are the ladies in reverse drag; they all have good moments, with Stoub in particular getting solid laughs as Wikéwitch the Russian director.

Lisa Baugh, playing three different roles, goes up and down. She’s best when she’s functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, linking scenes together with sarcastic commentary. She’s less successful in the meatier role of an overwrought director. Cara Rawlings is the “theater critic” who sits among the audience, and whose sudden outbursts send Anton into its play-within-a-play mode. Rawlings is good for a while, but her bit gets tiresome. She appears hard-pressed to find ways to sustain her character (and indeed, perhaps no one could).

The performances of Misty Lewis and Tracy Gershon are of problematic interest. They both do some occasional nice things, and they possess their characters’ proper attitudes. Lewis, as toned Hollywood bombshell Holly Seabé, certainly sells her sexuality well. If only we could believe her more. The trick, it would seem, is to find the humanity in the superficial cartoon character before us. Lewis’ readings are too often stiff and witless. Gershon, as long-suffering, homely, breast-cancer-victim actress Casey Mulgraw is sitting on possibly the play’s most interesting role. She seems to understand it all right, but her interpretation is too flat to be effective; she needs to act more and recite less.

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