BWW Review: It Is Easy To See Why ANNA KARENINA Is Rarely Revived
Anna Karenina/from the novel by Leo Tolstoy/
adapted by Helen Edmundson/directed by Heather Chesley/Actors Co-op/Crossley Theatre, Hollywood/through March 17
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, is a staggeringly ambitious project for any theatre. First of all, it is a period piece taking place in a foreign country, in this case Russia and belongs in the realm of literary classics, requiring or better suited to classically trained actors. Currently onstage at Actors Co-op's Crossley Theatre. Anna is directed intelligently by Heather Chesley and boasts a fine cast, but somehow lacks the stature that it deserves.
I am proud to say I am from the Stella Adler school of acting. Stella would argue that Tolstoy delivers big ideas, and big ideas must be played big, powerful, passionate, much, much bigger than life. As I sat through Act One, I noticed that all the actors are vocally on one level, particularly the women, rather monitone, lowkey, much in the vein of a soap, in which actors face off realistically, keeping a lid on their emotions. It didn't work for me. I wanted a big stage, grande sets, costumes and a classically trained ensemble to deliver the goods in a much more elevated, monumental fashion.
After seeing the entire play, I started to focus on why Chesley directed it the way she did. On a positive note, her staging is impeccable with chairs at four corners almost as if on a chess board. The audience is on four sides with only set pieces and props in view. The actors move around each other gracefully especially in the musical interludes incorporating some dancing that is quite lovely to watch. The reason I believe that Chesley has her actors somewhat underplay the action and emotions is to allow the audience to follow what is going on in the most convenient manner, bringing it down to their level. Except for diehard theatre lovers, most audience might get lost in Tolstoy's themes, particularly the issues of morality and how it affected Russian society before the revolution. Anna (Eva Abramian), married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Bruce Ladd) and the mother of one boy, falls in love with Count Alexei Vronsky Nikolai (Garrett Botts) and is determined to have him, to live as she pleases, like a more modern woman, a feminist far ahead of her time. However, her Russian upbringing and religion will not allow her flights of fancy. But, all around her, adultery abounds such as with close friend Stiva (Michael Worden) cheating on his wife Dolly (Lauren Thompson). The women gossip with great fury about the men, but they are locked into a state of marital submission by society's rules and regulations. Only Anna Karenina vows to break with tradition and live her own way, even if it kills her...and eventually it does.
There is a larger issue at stake in the play's overall structure. Edmundson has connected two stories within the plot of the play. There is Anna's tale and then there is Constantine "Kostya" Levin's (Joseph Barone), who is not related to Anna or her husband, but a stranger and landowner who thrives on working his land and improving the lives of the peasants. He serves as the conscience of Anna and she as his when he falls passionately in love with the lovely Kitty (Ivy Beech) also smitten with Vronsky.
If all of this sounds confusing, it is. It may tantalize on the printed pages of a novel, but on the stage it needs a much bolder and riveting interpretation to keep audience consistently attentive.
The entire cast do their best to fulfill their characters' melodramatic ups and downs. Barone is a standout as Levin. His steady, honest, hard-working nature is easy to relate to. Barone keeps him sincerely on track throughout. Abramian, nevertheless, lacks the ferocity that Anna needs to keep her on her feet through bouts with morphine and other maniacally self-destructive plot twists. She is pretty and with good emotional involvement but should go a giant step or two beyond what she is currently conveying.
This is one play, rarely performed, that should stay that way. Actors Co-op deserves credit for trying, but it just doesn't engage us enough, coming in at almost three hours to boot.
(photo credit: Larry Sandez)