Saturday, November 21, 2015

Anton in Show Business: Meta Theatre

 “Meta Theatre” (or "metatheatre") is a fashionable concept without a precise definition. It’s been used for instance to describe plays in which comedy and tragedy occur in close relationship. But the Greek prefix “meta” suggests a second level above, the clearest theatrical example being the play within a play.

 Anton in Show Business is the second HSU production in a row this year to feature a prominent play within a play. Moreover, both Kiss Me, Kate and Anton in Show Business are about theatrical productions in process, exposing backstage activity as part of the onstage action.

 In Kiss Me Kate, the play within the play (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew inside an ongoing production of that play) is designed to comically reveal the symmetry in relationships between the actors and their characters. But Anton reveals and satirizes the theatrical world in which the play within the play takes place.

 A play that comments on itself is more clearly “meta-theatrical.” Satire and parody can occur without that additional level of distance and complication, when the object of satire is business culture (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) or war and other human follies (Aristophanes, Stanley Kubrick) as well as particular institutions (as in Paddy Chayefsky’s films Hospital and Network.)

But when the target of satire is theatrical convention or institutions including theatre, that additional level of distance and complication in meta theatre may appear. In entertainment terms, it can be effective through the boldness and legitimacy of its critique, the language or action by which the critique is made, or in critiquing itself by answering a question that might occur to audience members at the time it occurs to them, as happens a few times in Anton (after the caricature of an activist black director, for instance.)

 Of Anton in Show Business, New York Times critic Bruce Weber observed: “The barbs are insider-specific and most are affectionately applied, and in the end the message is clear. The theatrical enterprise has been so fouled by money problems, so twisted by a culture of celebrity, so swaddled in intellectual pretension, that the simple desire to put on a show, to tell a story onstage, has been hopelessly -- almost hopelessly -- buried. What has risen in its place is a hermetic theater world that talks to itself and whose citizens are defensive and embarrassed about the fundamental joy that drew them to the stage in the first place.”

 That is, in part, to theatre without the meta.

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