Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Anna Karenina (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

What startled and delighted me more than anything in the Actors Co-op production of Anna Karenina proved to be the script.  Helen Edmunson's adaptation of Leo Tolskoy's classic felt like a revelation.  Rather than stinting on the various stories and plots of the novel which exist to counter-balance one another (most versions focus on the title character), her play manages to bring in the entire scope of the basic tales of most characters.  This means a sacrifice of many details, many scenes, but it gives the play some of the novel's scope.  Its central conceit is to give equal time to Levin (Joseph Barone) of all people!  Which given he proves the polar opposite of Anna (Eva Abramian) seems both odd yet perfect.  More importantly, in some kind of limbo perhaps outside time in some way, the entire play is presented as Anna and Levin (who meet once near the end of the book) as telling each other their story while in a sense living it.

Credit: Larry Sandez
Honestly I adore this.  It gives both characters someone with whom to speak--not some vague audience member but another character who has their own agenda, who might judge them or in turn react to being judged.  Which does happen.  Indeed, this and the almost reader's theatre approach of shifting times and places, with a fistful of actors portraying hundred of roles if anything reminds me of Peter Shaffer crossed with William Shakespeare.  I was drawn into this world and their situation as I never have with any adaptation of Tolstoy's work before.

The scenic (Stephen Gifford), lighting (Lisa D. Katz), costume (Vicki Conrad), and sound (David B. Marling) designs all worked together very well with an in-the-round setting to immerse us in the world of Anna and Levin, a world so dissatisfying in so very many ways to them both.  Julie Hall's choreography helped as well, sweeping us into the movement which so perfectly captures a sense of social ebbing as well as flowing.

Credit: Larry Sandez
Honestly, the cast didn't quite live up to this wonderful script.  Not quite.  There were individual performances I found excellent--not least Bruce Ladd as Alexei Karenin, who undergoes quite the huge character arc.  Also I found Deborah Marlowe fantastic in her several roles, showing a fantastic range.  The rest of the cast did fine, and let it be noted I felt for every single one them before the play ended.

And in the end, that seems the most important thing.  I just don't think anyone consistently matched the quality of the script, which to my tastes was a very high bar.  But that is very nearly nitpicking.  Michael Worden, Lauren Thompson, Garrett Botts and Ivy Beech all together with the rest (including of course the leads) all did well and told this complex tale of human suffering and desires with truth as well as nuance.

Credit: Larry Sandez
Essentially, Levin is a land-owner of strict morals tortured by a feeling of not belonging, not fitting in.  Worse, he feels fitting in would be morally wrong.  He might be right.  But he remains supremely judgmental, of other as well as himself, and genuinely benevolent even as he wants to scream in frustration at his peasants.  Anna meanwhile is a beautiful young woman of relatively humble beginnings wed to a powerful man many years older.  They have a son, whom she adores.  She loves the city life of St. Petersburg and Moscow, persuades her sister in law to forgive Anna's brother when he commits adultery.  Not, alas, for the first or last time.

Both are unhappy, and both react badly to this fact.  Both, and maybe this echoes in our time with a deep sharpness, ultimately feel trapped by life.  Not living and enjoying it, but enduring the days, seeing something, anything, to give that breathing worth.

Credit: Larry Sandez
And yes, both feel intense loneliness.

Little wonder one thinks the worse of all, while seeking to bury himself in work.  The other finds herself reacting with genuine romantic feelings, suppressed and not-quite-unwelcome passion in defiance of every rule, habit or ideal she has ever known.  One of the few things they agree upon when they do meet is how ugly modern art has become--merely showing the truth, in all its starkness.

Great art does not usually offer answers.  Tolstoy's novel certainly does not, but rather asks profound questions and does not allow any easy answers.  Such was my experience watching this adaptation, which left me deeply moved and haunted by these people, all of them, and I ponder their choices.  Their tragedies.  And their victories.  For that the script and cast and director Heather Chesley deserve a lot of credit.

Anna Karenina plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm until March 23, 2019 (Saturday matinees at 2:30pm March 2, 16, 23) on  at the Crossley Theatre, 1760 North Gower Street (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood), Los Angeles CA.

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