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.
The second act shall mostly remain a mystery for this overview, because I think it’s worthwhile for you, reader, to still see the production if you get the chance. You are allowed to know that Anna and Vronsky elope and that Kitty and Levin get a second encounter, where everything goes remarkably more in Levin’s favor and he proposes marriage again, which this-time-round Kitty accepts. There is also a subplot concerning Levin’s brother and the politics of worker equality, a subplot that is strangely (considering both Russian history and how much stage time this narrative receives) superfluous and unremarkable, save to provide a context for Levin being depicted as a bit of a romantic.
After that, life pretty much falls apart for everyone. What? Don’t look at me like that. It’s Russian literature, and happy endings are for sissies.
Now let’s talk about some things…
Grumbles and Guffaws
Two things, specifically, and then I’ll finish up on the main selling point I want to express. There are some writing issues in this play. The first issue is something that while leaving the theater I heard a lot of the audience commenting on, and not in a particularly happy tone. The issue was in the way the Ensemble would occasionally interject and narrate plot in the middle of a scene. It would be members of the background or the servants, and they would just randomly pipe up with a 3rd person observation like Kevin McKeon forgot he was meant to finish adapting Tolstoy’s novel to the stage. It was difficult for people to stay immersed in the narrative when this happened, it was certainly difficult for me, and there were some grumbles about it.
However, instead of condemning or supporting the decision (perhaps as an audience member it genuinely worked for you), or speculating as to why this decision was made, I would like to slide an idea across the table for you to consider on your own. Not even across the table, actually. Across the floor. With my foot. Don’t pick it up if you don’t want to.
Tolstoy’s novel is an immaculate work of realist fiction. The novel gained notoriety in its time because of how honest it seemed about a relatively taboo issue: love outside one's marriage. However, the novel is also a fairly early example of a writing style closely tied to Modernism, specifically in its variance of ‘narrative tone’. Basically, one character’s story is not told in the same way as another’s. Sometimes it feels more personal, sometimes colder, sometimes it descends into stream-of-consciousness, and the reason this ties closely to Modernism is because of Modernism’s obsession and anxiety over the loss of Objective Truth in realization of Subjective Truth. What’s that? We all view reality differently and this universe is too complicated to express using the voice of a single human being? Novel.
Okay, okay, there’s more to Modernism than that. A new scientific age and the beauty found in the function of form, etc. but we’re just dealing with the subjective voice issue, so don’t send me your emails. What I’d like to submit to you is that this occasional-narration business, in its own way, attempts to engage with the Modernist element of the story using what can be read as high-society gossip or the personal opinions of those who are on the outside looking in. The singular truth of the matter is called into question, or if it’s not and the tactic completely failed then it’s at least a superficial way of introducing the Modernist concept of the subjective voice. There. Take that as you will.
The other writing issue I’ll briefly touch on is how apparently funny this rendition of the play was. I’m not one to argue with a well-executed laugh-line, and everyone knows it’s the heaviness of theater that has proved to be its downfall in a competitive entertainment industry filled with easy-to-digest mediums, but I must embrace my fun-sponginess for a moment and take a stand. Russian literature excels at being so adamantly depressing that it’s a little bit funny. “Laughter through tears”, as those who have read Gogol will recognize. But to achieve that very potent and important effect, one has to commit to the darker side of things. Too often a line was sold as comedy that actually defined a character’s – er…well…character, and so in our audience-brain we attached certain traits to hilarity. Unfortunately, however, a moment that tried to express gravitas or incite really any reaction other than laughter, was lost on us if it employed that character trait we had now associated with comedy. Let me give you an example:
Karenin, Anna’s husband for those who don’t recall, is defined by his zealous commitment to order and schedule. Already you can see the comedy potential that lies within, and the first act takes no prisoners in getting a titter from the crowd concerning how ridiculously all-about-schedules this man is. Wife leaving town? He gushes about the itinerary. Son learning to read? Only the refined order of the Bible for this child to peruse! Wife falling for another man and feels no affinity for or attraction to Karenin as a husband or a man any longer? It’s time to make love.
Wait. Backtrack. That last part wasn’t meant to be funny. Anna Karenina is clearly beginning to show signs of life for the first time in a long while, is smitten with a handsome gentleman who actually shows her some means of affection, and is genuinely put off by the look of the husband she is legally bound to. Yet as a matter of duty and schedule, Anna is forced to give herself to a man who has become unequivocally inhuman in his robotic dedication to order and timetables. Karenin's quiet voice, urging, “it is time, it is time”, beckoning Anna into a bed she actively tries to avoid should be horrifying, yet the entire row behind me was going absolutely mental. It just muddles up the effect is what I’m trying to say. But who am I to judge? I laughed.
I’ve been trying to set this up for an overarching point. Slowly, apparently, and with many tangents. The point brings us all the way back to the quote from the program I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the one that was printed in big letters, its purpose being to highlight the cultural mindset of Russia in relation to women, and indeed to highlight where much of the tension comes from in Anna Karenina. The quote that says women are “fettered by the chains of decency”. Well, respectfully, I disagree. Not with the cultural mindset part, or that men have been privileged in ways women haven’t (I am far too uneducated in that field for such a discussion and I already concede defeat), but if the women of Anna Karenina were “fettered by chains”, they would not be nearly as dynamic and powerful as they wind up being.
This was the part of the evening that really stuck with me. The set was brilliant, let’s not forget, but the women of this story are what gave it life. Every actress brought her A-game, it was impressive to see, and it’s not that the male actors didn’t do a good job, they were simply the ones in the cast burdened with the comedy cop-outs, and therefore the female characters had more moments of fully communicated expression, of true poignancy, and of genuine connection with each other. The lads definitely showed up, but it was the ladies who carried the team.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. The story at its most basic level simply favors the women of Anna Karenina, and the quote from the program stands in such stark contrast to the experience because the world of ‘decency’ (the high-society world) is really the only world we’re privy to. We get hints of the worker world, but superficially and only in its relation to what’s happening with the aristocracy, and within the aristocratic setting it is the men who are static. Nothing really affects the men, good or bad. They even make a point of that in the play, as Stiva is passively overlooked for his affair and Vronksy’s friends barely discuss his relations with Anna Karenina. The men are just…there. Rather dull. But the women are powerful, their weapons are gossip and reputation, they enrapture us in their staggeringly intricate and beautiful costumes (tip of the hat to Costumer Jeff Cone), and go from being the belle of the ball to the most hated name in Moscow. If we were shown the world of sport or politics or business or philosophy in any meaningful way then perhaps the females of Anna Karenina’s world would seem rather restricted, but that is not this story, and we are given no such meaningful glimpses, so Anna, Dolly, Kitty, Kitty’s mother, and the high society women reign supreme. Their movement, their emotions, their rises and falls are what make this play worthwhile. See it.
Photos from Portland Center Stage's production of ANNA KARENINA by Patrick Weishampel.
Portland Center Stage's production of ANNA KARENINA continues through May 6. For tickets and information, visit www.pcs.org.
To check out more production photos from ANNA KARENINA, visit their flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/portlandcenterstage/sets/72157629469909017/with/7068486793/