'Sisters' in 'Show Business'

By Dana Casadei

MSU repertory theater goes meta with overlapping, Chekhovian-themed shows

A play can take anywhere from weeks to years to get off the ground, with hours of rehearsals, costume fittings and making sure each beat has been perfected. Directing two shows at one time? Some would call that crazy. But Rob Roznowski, a Michigan State University professor and head of acting, saw it as a just the type of challenge he wanted to tackle. Again.

“It’s tough doing two shows cause you feel like you’re abandoning one or focusing on the other,” Roznowski said. “It’s tough to balance both.”

Said balancing act is one he performed during the MSU theater department’s 2006-‘07 season when he simultaneously directed “Tea and Sympathy” and “The Children’s Hour” in repertory. This season’s theme is (New) Plays in New Ways,” and the two opening shows are “Three Sisters” and “Anton in Show Business.” They have similar themes and characters, with a novel central conceit: one play is actually “about” the other one.

Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is the classic tragicomedy, which was legendarily inspired by the relationship between the Brontë sisters. The title characters are members of the Prozorov family, who yearn to return to escape the confines of their rural life to an idealized Moscow. The overarching theme of the decay of the privileged class certainly echoes in today’s 99 percent occupy-happy society. “Anton in Show Business,” meanwhile, is more satirical in nature, following the journey three women who are about to tackle the roles of “Three Sisters” in a regional production.

“One is purely comedic and one is sort of … Chekhovian,” he said with a laugh. “What’s interesting about it is they are two completely different styles, so it really tests your work as a director. For me it was figuring out the location and that sort of thing and then working backwards from that.”

“Anton in Show Business” won the American Theatre Critics’ Steinberg New Play Award in 2001, which Variety called both “a love letter and a poison pen letter to the American theater.” In it, the three actresses offer tongue-in-cheek solutions to their characters’ existential crises.

Both shows share the same stage and will be conducted environmentally, which means that the audience sits in the characters’ homes. Student set designer Shannon Melick created the rooms to allow the audience to see offstage action, including the characters’ intimate relationships and tragedies. The sets will seamlessly transition into bedrooms and kitchens, among other places. Some of the actresses are in both shows, and similar music and blocking to tie the two shows together.

“I really wanted to make sure that the audience would recognize characters from one show to the other,” Roznowski said. “The three sisters are so indelible in terms of what their characteristics are, so I wanted to mirror and mimic those in casting for ‘Anton.’”

With actors playing actors playing characters beyond their depth, keeping things straight gets to be a little tricky. The roles of the three sisters may have similarities, but the same women aren’t playing them. Roznowski says that this meta quality will enhance the original work.

“I love how flawed the characters are in Chekhov’s plays,” Roznowski said. “His work is unbearably delicate and considerably difficult. Both shows capture this essence.”

“Three Sisters” & “Anton in Show Business”
Michigan State University Department of Theatre
Sept. 18-29
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m .Saturdays and Sundays
Auditorium Arena Theatre, East Lansing
$20 adults/$10 students
(517) 353-1982