Why should anyone want to see “live theater” when there are so many entertainment opportunities beckoning for your entertainment bucks?

In the 21 years I have been writing this column, I have been asked this question more times than I care to remember only to find as many or more affirmations for ”live theater” from “newly indoctrinated theater patrons” time and time again.

Last week I raved about a terrific show at the “Onstage Theatre” in Pleasant Hill entitled, “The Lucky O’Learys”. Again, I was fortunate to engage in conversation with a patron by the name of Michael O’Leary who was detoured by a sign near his home announcing the play’s title. “My wife and I were on our way home when we saw the sign near the theatre and were curious about a play with our family’s name in its title and just dropped in to see what it was all about. We are enjoying this play and this experience so much”, he said. “Wow” he exclaimed, “We’ve never been to a live theatrical production before and this is a kick! We may even buy season tickets! Are all their shows this good?” he asked. “What have we been missing for all these years that we have driven past this theater and never come in before!”

Fortunately and unfortunately, all community theatre is not perfect, certainly not when compared with professional theatre or movie productions. But the experience is always a unique experience, up close and very personal. If it were not for these wonderful community theaters, a lot of them right here in our own back yards, there would probably not be anywhere near as many talented people getting the basic experience necessary to motivate them along the rough and tedious road to professionalism. Further, these small theaters help to keep the cost of tickets low because of volunteer actors and help.

Checkout this takeoff on Anton Chekov’s The Three Sisters!

This week, I had the very good fortune to attend the Act Now!’s current theatrical comedy, Anton in Show Business, in the Knight’s Stage III Theatre on the ground floor of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Playwright Jane Martin (or whoever the real author is) has written a play that parallels in many ways the works of the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekov and his classic play, The Three Sisters. To paraphrase Director Timothy Beagley’s comments from the program, Chekov’s plays were quite unique, especially for his time, in that there were no single lead characters, his plays were ensemble plays, in which there is a “collective protagonist”. In Chekov’s “Three Sisters” the main characters were “ordinary people, unimportant to the world around them, (but) desperately important to themselves.”

Thus in this dramatic comedy, “Anton In Show Business”, three women, similar in a fashion to Checkov’s “Sisters” (sisters in their theatrical ambition, their hopes and dreams), form an allegiance out of necessity.

It is widely assumed that “Jane Martin”, who has written several highly acclaimed plays, is the pseudonym of Jon Jory, who for over 30 years was the producing director of the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville. Therefore the ongoing mystery as to who the reclusive Jane Martin really is, continues to elude journalistic theatrical investigators.

Holly (Beth Gordon Bemis), who is a big name West Coast television actress (with absolutely no experience in stage acting), has been engaged to be the big name draw in a regional theatrical production of Chekov’s play, The Three Sisters, planned for San Antonio, Texas. Casey (Rhonda Taylor), a longtime aspiring-to-be-professional actress, muses over her unexciting admission that she has probably played in over 200 unpaid performances. Liasbette (Jacquie Duckworth) is fresh out of acting school and has been successfully selected for a role in this play, not because of her talent, but because of her adverse treatment by the British director and the willpower of the show’s main draw, Holly.

The beauty in this comedy, this marriage of three individually desperate women, is that, as it is with marriages of all kinds, the unity is often an allegiance that works in the short term and yet doesn’t always work completely. Just as in real life, their personal shortcomings and frailties often wend a weird and wonderful path for us to travel.

Anton In Show Business is a spoof on theater, on actors, on directors, on costumers, on just about everything relevant to the creation of a theatrical production. It is a wonderful, weird and wacky tongue-in-cheek look at what makes theatre fun and thought-provoking. While on the surface it is comedy, pure and simple, underneath, if you’re willing to look, it is a poignant documentary on life in general.

Director Tim Beagley has outdone himself in selecting a superlative cast and directing them with clarity, intensity and meaningful purpose. Every character, every actress, whether they play male or female characters, main or supportive roles, are equally important, equally outstanding in their contribution. It is a funny, funny show that leaves the pleasant after taste of a great big “Ah so-o-o-o”!

Supportive actress Cynthia Roberts plays several male characters - - brilliantly! Add to the supportive actresses’ ensemble, the outstanding talents of Jennifer Graham, Pisha Wayne, Michelle Barrow-Ianiro and you have a fun-filled production that incites laughter and provides a great evening at the theatre. Stage Manager Penelope Ayles, Costumer Cindy Nickey and lighting designer Aaron Scherbarth contributed in large part to the production’s total success. Even the stagehands, Lainey Garrity, Jasmine Winston and Whitney Warren add significantly by filling in as all important walk-ons.

This very clever and funny show plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15, and on Sundays at 2:15 p.m., with performances through Sunday, February 24th. Call (925) 943-7469 (SHOW) for reservations, or visit the company’s website at www.actnowtheatre.org for more information. The Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts is located at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range in price between $23 (seniors) and $25 (adults) each, and $12.50 for those 17 and under.

Harold Pinter’s dark and menacing messenger, The Birthday Party, strikes fear in the heart of Berkeley!

The Aurora Theatre, a widely acclaimed professional theatre in Berkeley, is producing Harold Pinter’s dark comedy and menacing messenger, The Birthday Party.

Harold Pinter wrote this play, his first full length play, in 1957 and it premiered in London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. Audiences were bewildered, even infuriated by its dark, sinister, and foreboding existentialistic undertones. Pinter was “Pinterizing” his own experiences in life, which, having been born in 1930 and raised in Hackney London during the bombing of Britain by the Germans was pretty frightening and surreal.

This play arose from an experience that Pinter had as a touring young actor in 1954, where he found himself homeless for a night. He encountered and engaged a disheveled middle-aged man and learned that the man (formerly a pianist by profession) lived in a sea-side resort bed and breakfast. The man invited Pinter to room with him for the night, but warned him that the accommodations were certainly less than comfortable or favorable. Pinter, himself in a situation where he had little other choice, joined the gentleman, and accompanied him to the rundown B&B by the bay. The man’s landlord and landlady were very strange, the man sullenly quiet; the woman, boisterous and affectionately harassing to the pianist, with whom she was infatuated. When Pinter asked the man the next morning why he tolerated such a filthy and frustrating lodging, the man replied, because “There’s nowhere else to go.” Like Pinter that evening, like the pianist at that time in his life, many of us suffer prejudice and retribution (economic, religious and political) because at this or that particular time in our lives, we have no alternatives, no where else to go to escape the slings and arrows of life’s unexpected turns of fortune.

Pinter’s political thriller, The Birthday Party, has been hailed as one of the most essential works of modern theater.

Under the artful direction of Tom Ross, this strange and foreboding tale of Stanley, a disheveled and reticent boarder of a bed and breakfast inn by the ocean, begins to unfold. Stanley (played pluperfectly by James Carpenter) is out of work, out of luck and is suspicious of everyone and everything about him. He is fearful, intimidated and reluctant to leave the awkward refuge in which he resides. His landlady, Meg (played by Phoebe Moyer) and landlord Petey (played by Chris Ayles) cater to their one and only houseguest. Meg, in a motherly fashion, teases, tickles, and cajoles the unreceptive and ireful Stanley, who rejects her involvement with him. A very attractive neighbor, Lulu (played by Emily Jordan) attempts to persuade Stanley to clean himself up and to unloose his recluse nature. He wants to join and embrace her overtures, but cannot free the imaginary shackles that hold him in his self-impose prison.

The next day two strange and new guests, Mr. Goldberg and Mr. McCann (played by Julian Lopez-Morillas and Michael Ray Wisely) arrive seeking to rent a room for the night and bringing with them the cold aura of an unknown relevance and surreptitious and mysterious manner. Supposedly, this evening is Stanley’s birthday and the unwelcome guests want to help Stanley celebrate this very special day in his life. Stanley fears that they have come for him, and most assuredly they have, and why, you will have experience personally, to judge for yourself.

This is a chilling, fear-inducing thriller that will raise the cockles of your heart and engage your mind long after you leave the theater.

The acting is absolutely superb, Phoebe Moyer and James Carpenter have never been better. Julian Lopez-Morillas is always terrific as is Chris Ayles. It is hard to believe that the jovial Ghost of Christmas Past in Center Repertory’s most recent Christmas Carol, could play such a dark and sinister character as Mr. McCann.

The Birthday Party plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Matinees on Sundays at 2 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m., now through Sunday, March 4th. The Aurora Theatre is located at 2081 Addison Street in Berkeley, just a block North and West of the downtown Berkeley BART Station. Call (510) 843-4822 and visit the company’s website at www.auroratheatre.org for additional information. Ticket are $38 each.