This workshop production of Anna K provides a unique look at a well-worn tale. The adaptation by Jacqueline E. Lawton, set in 1920’s Paris, drops hints about pivotal social change along with elements of hedonism, early Dada artistic expressionism, and of course, the ever present tug of love and duty. So many disparate elements would have a tendency to be a muddled mess, and there are, in fact, some murky moments as characters struggle to find their voice and true motivation, but on the whole, the courageous effort is to be commended, with special kudos to visionary direction by Shirley Serotsky, who honors its intent and integrity.
Anna’s inner conflicted emotions are depicted through creative movement in the opening sequence, where she crouches in a defensive position caught between the outstretched arms of two men, her husband Karenin and the dashing Vronsky. Lightening quick lighting changes, designed by Kristin Thompson, thrust her into the next scene, performing as a celebrated chanteuse in a nightclub in gay Paris. The effective use of movement and music enhances Anna’s story, as does the exquisite staging of all the characters who sit at tables strategically placed along the corners of the stage. The video projections also contribute to a sense of place and history to propel the story.
Erica Chamblee plays the confused and conflicted Anna with an easy natural grace. Stunted by the obtrusive, over-controlling Karenin, Anna initially resists the charming officer Vronsky who is already betrothed to Kitty. Vronsky’s early advances might be the weakest part of the story since Danny Gavigan’s expressions of love and absolute devotion come from utterly nowhere and are delivered with such lackluster that the scene twitters into soap opera territory. Adrienne Nelson as liquored up confidante Betsy saves the day with her droll observations about life, urging Anna to seize a chance for love, all while holding a treasured glass of aperitif at all times. The subplot love story between Kitty and Levin, nicely played by Kristen Egermeier and Theodore Snead, adds an interesting and well-meaning context for the times since he portrays the sometimes persecuted artist with Dada inclinations, and she is willing to stand by his side no matter what. However, their relationship almost upstages the main characters since they seem more genuinely smitten with each other.
Lawton has her work cut out for her, extracting the dramatic elements to tell a balanced story from the massive text while interjecting her own take on the character’s motivation, their back-story, and resolution. She adds nice touches along the way, for example, providing subtle shadings to Karenin who is concerned about even the slightest appearance of impropriety. He is livid when word gets out about Anna’s impromptu singing at a small private event which, somehow, created headlines around the world paparazzi style, an over-the top reaction that probably needs to be recalibrated. If he reacts so vehemently to this harmless trifle, then the rest of the sordid tale, complete with a frenzied affair and love child, is unrealistically out of scope. Still, Karenin seems to truly love and adore his wife despite their ill-fated mismatch, and he delivers an impassioned speech in the Parliament about the need to end racism against the Negro American. Which brings up the question of identify and identification. Anna seems to be intentionally blind cast in the role, which is great. It just gets a little confusing since the artist character Levin bears obvious burdens of racism, and the play refers to reparations and discrimination.
It takes guts to start up a new theater company today to explore new, original works and nontraditional voices. Guts and faith in the inquisitive capacity of the theater community to support it. Ms Lawton’s lauded Deep Belly Beautiful is next in the works for theHegira company seeking to “provide a space for women writers of color and a change of pace for the American Theatre.” Here’s hoping that in today’s spiraling-down-with-no-end-in-sight economic crisis, the laudable efforts of this innovative and spirited troupe don’t end up under the train — like Mama, or Anna.
Based on the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Adapted by Jacqueline E. Lawton
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by theHegira
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 2:20 hours with one intermission
When: Thru March 1, Thurs – Sat at 8, Sun matinee at 3, Limited Run.
Where: Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD (next to AFI Theater)