BWW Reviews: Glimpsing the Aristocratic Elbow - ANNA KARENINA at Portland Center Stage, Ends 5/6


There is a snippet of a quote in the Portland Center Stage’s program of ANNA KARENINA, which feels silly to mention at all save that it stands so adverse to the play itself—and I request that you, reader, bear this quote in mind for the duration. It reads:

"Truly, it sometimes seems that God’s world has been created for men alone; the universe is open to them, with all its mysteries; for them there are words, the arts and knowledge; for them there is freedom and all the joys of life. From the cradle a woman is fettered by the chains of decency." – Elena Gam.

Mark those words, if you would be so kind, for the women of Anna Karenina are fettered by no chains, and instead wield a dynamic strength that lets them rise higher (and inevitably fall farther) than their male counterparts. And no that quote was not from memory. I nicked a program. I'm sorry.



First let us set the scene, and ‘set’ is such an appropriate word that it borders on arousal. I did not expect to be opening the review of Anna Karenina in this manner but it must be done and I must salute with all bravado the designers who worked on this project.

I was hesitant at first when I saw the looming pillars and archways (for it truly is an intimidating set to behold) but the intricacies in the Moscow cityscape and those same aforementioned archways were…wonderful. They were wonderful. And not wonderful for themselves, but wonderful in the dynamic way these arches and the rest of the set were used (and here I must commend director Chris Coleman as well). The effect of moving from white-lit to sepia-toned to shadowed to the blue-of-night provoked breathtaking changes from this particular environment. The introduction of a small curtain allows for the smoothest transitions between scenes and locations I possibly have ever witnessed in a high-level production. I’m sure it sounds meaningless, but if you have not yet seen this play, then see it for the spectacle of the set alone. Well done.

The plot itself follows several aristocratic romances and romantic failures, with the center of the story revolving around the title character, Anna Karenina. Anna begins the story by journeying to Moscow where her brother, Stiva, has been snapped in an extramarital affair, leaving Anna to convince Stiva’s wife, Dolly, not to abandon the marriage. The affair is half-referenced in conversation at several points throughout the rest of the play, but is largely glossed over, the subject quickly changed, and the characters left to shrug as if to say, “Oh that Stiva! What a goose!”. Pay attention to that reaction.

After waving a magical, remedying woman-wand at the marriage crisis of Dolly and Stiva, Anna Karenina becomes quite close with Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, who seems to admire Anna for her elegance and beauty even as an aged and married woman. Kitty invites Anna to a party in the evening, where Kitty’s suitor Vronsky will be in attendance (the same suitor whom Anna just had her meet-cute with approximately seven audience-minutes prior). Anna attends, Vronsky prefers Anna to Kitty, and Kitty is stunned by this betrayal (doubly so, as gentle-hearted friend-from-long-ago Levin has shown up to the event and proposed to Kitty, which Kitty meets with a resoundingly emphatic ‘no’).

The rest moves rather in the direction you would imagine: Vronsky follows Anna to Petersburg, the two engage in an illicit and scandalous affair, Kitty recovers from a broken heart, and gentle-hearted Levin returns to his own estate. Things truly become interesting though, when Anna’s husband, Karenin, finds out about the affair and allows it to continue so long as nothing interferes with Karenin’s reputation or his household. This strange, already-defeated approach by Karenin allows Anna and Vronsky to grow closer, close enough that they fall in love and Anna is beset with child. Really, I’m not one to roll my eyes at too much, but I should note that the end of the first act is so soap-opera dramatic that it induced a giggle from the crowd.

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Barrett Johnson Barrett Johnson is a writer of self-described "Importance. Potentially positive or negative." After growing up in Portland, Barrett attended Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where he received 1st class Honors in Film and English Literature. He has since written short plays, poems for literary magazines, and has received top honors in the Indie International Songwriting Competition. Now back in Portland, Barrett reviews for BroadwayWorld and plays music at local venues. He longs to hear from you regarding his work, so please feel free to get in touch!

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