Anna Karenina

The Company  of Anna Karenina
The Company of Anna Karenina
Photo: AdamsVisCom
This adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel stands as the most remarkable production in the relatively new tenure of the Denver Center Theatre Company's artistic director, Chris Coleman. About nine years ago, he asked Kevin McKeon—whose adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars impressed Coleman (who had helped with the script and later directed the production)—to consider adapting Anna Karenina, another complex and lengthy tale. Two years later, in 2012, Coleman directed the world premiere of McKeon's new script at Portland Center Stage, where he was artistic director.

Coleman's substitution of the usual Shakespearean mainstage winter production with this script proves to be a prescient choice. Many literati consider Anna Karenina to be the greatest novel ever written, and in McKeon's adaptation we certainly see why they would feel this way. Using a technique developed by Paul Sills in the 1970s called Story Theatre, McKeon employs a variety of characters to deliver key narrative passages, which economically provide all the necessary context for the dialogue; together, the narration and dialogue deliver a powerful catharsis fully equal to the novel.

Like Shakespeare, Tolstoy's subject matters are still topical—in this case, the plight of women in a society ruled by men and for men. There has always been a woman's movement, of course—take the story of Esther from the Torah or Lyssistra by Aristophanes—but public discussion picked up considerably in the 19th century with Beethoven's Fidelio, Verdi's La traviata, Bizet's Carmen, Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, to name a few key explorations, and Tolstoy's tragic heroine certainly belongs in this quintessential company; in fact, one could argue that, given she is the center of a detailed novel, her depth exceeds that of these other iconic figures.

James Shanklin as Karenin and Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina
James Shanklin as Karenin and
Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Anna Karenina (Kate MacCluggage) is married to a high-level statesman, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (James Shanklin), twenty years her senior. She has a gift for getting along with everyone and is greatly admired, but underneath all the courtly protocols of polite society, she bristles under the yoke of a loveless marriage and the disempowerment she suffers as a woman. Yet, when she meets the dashing and gallant Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (Patrick Zeller), a cavalry officer, she puts up strong resistance to his persistent advances.

MacCluggage is luminous revealing Anna's many moods—the disappointments and joys—as she weighs the sincerity of Vronsky's praises and pleadings. Tolstoy takes great pains to show Anna's circumspection regarding societal norms, while MacCluggage's fine vocal and physical detail clearly show Anna's predisposition as bound by these strictures.

Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina and Patrick Zeller as Vronsky
Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina
and Patrick Zeller as Vronsky
Photo: AdamsVisCom
At the ball, Vronsky's infatuation with Anna is obvious when they dance, driving her to leave quickly afterwards, as she wrestles with her feelings. One may ask what kind of a gentleman is Vronsky, who would press himself on a married woman, particularly given the times, but once Anna admits her feelings to herself, their mutual attraction takes over, leading to a series of confrontations with Karenin who, at first, refuses to divorce Anna and threatens to take away their son, Seriozha (Brooks Garvey), if she persists in her affair with Vronsky.

Up to this point, the passion and simpatico between by Anna and Vronsky seem sure to carry the couple through their ostracization by St. Petersburg society, with Zeller's body language and focus embodying Vronsky's devotion to and desire for Anna. However, Anna's near death during childbirth, of her daughter by Vronsky, leads to a series of relationship-altering events.

Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina and Patrick Zeller as Vronsky
Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina
and Patrick Zeller as Vronsky
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Alarmed by the news of Anna's condition, and seeing her recovery as a miracle, Karenin forgives Vronsky in a bout of actual Christianity. Vronsky, in turn, is embarrassed and, feeling a loss of honor, tries to kill himself with a gun. As Anna recovers from her death-tinged delirium, she finds herself repulsed by Karenin despite his forgiveness. Physically healed, Vronksy prepares to leave on a dangerous military mission. In desperation, Anna tells Karenin she must see Vronsky one more time (ostensibly, to say good-bye), and they fall together again, eloping to Italy soon thereafter, leaving Seriozha behind and Karenin's offer of divorce on the table—thus crossing the Rubicon both literally and figuratively.

MacCluggage and Zeller heat up the stage during this reunion, bringing Anna and Vronsky's physical and emotional bonding to its zenith. Karenin tells Seriozha that his mother is dead. Shanklin's arc moves from anger to compassion to retribution, deftly integrating Karenin's conflicting personalities—the superficial slave to appearances, convention, and others' opinions (think Polonius in Hamlet) versus his heart that wants to believe in Jesus' teachings—themes that play a major role in Tolstoy's life and works.

(Left to right) Anastasia Davidson as Dolly and Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina
(L to R) Anastasia Davidson as Dolly
and Kate MacCluggage as Anna Karenina
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Another affinity between Tolstoy and Shakespeare is the use of parallel plot structures between different couples dealing with similar issues. Anna's friend, Dolly (Anastasia Davidson), is shattered by the infidelities of her husband, Stiva (Timothy McCracken), Anna's brother. Anna visits the couple in the hope of helping them reconcile. In a foreshadowing of future events, Anna has a heart-to-heart with Dolly, eventually enabling her to forgive Stiva, a luminescent moment that is paid forward when Dolly later explains her experience to Karenin. Davidson is gripping, as she channels Dolly's inner turmoil and panoramic range of emotional changes, as she transmutes Dolly's pain into strength.

(Left to right) Timothy McCracken as Stiva and Kyle Cameron as Levin
(L to R) Timothy McCracken as Stiva
and Kyle Cameron as Levin
Photo: Cheyenne Michaels
Through Stiva, a Moscow aristocrat and civil servant, Tolstoy explicates the contradictions of the Russian aristocracy in much the same vein as Chekhov: their willful ignorance of the growing discontent of the various classes under their control—the serfs, the laborers, and the intelligentsia—as well as their confused personal natures. McCracken embraces all these disparate facets—Stiva's wandering eye for women, his bond with Anna, the cavalier handling of his own land sales, his respect for Karenin, his concern for Levin and Kitty's happiness—and masterfully reconciles them into an enigmatic whole.

Levin (Kyle Cameron), is a semi-autobiographical portrait of Tolstoy—his beliefs, struggles, and life events. Tolstoy's first name was Lev, and in Russian Levin means "of Lev." According to one Tolstoy scholar, Levin's proposal to Kitty (Allison Altman) and his request that she read his diary replicate events between Tolstoy and Sophia Behrs. Kitty, a princess, is sister to Dolly and sister-in-law to Anna's brother Stiva. The novel and the play detail Levin's difficulties managing his estate, his eventual marriage, and his struggle to accept the Christian faith, until the birth of his first child.

Allison Altman as Kitty and Patrick Zeller as Vronsky
Allison Altman as Kitty
and Patrick Zeller as Vronsky
Photo: Cheyenne Michaels
Cameron is a marvel communicating the introverted Levin's disappointment as he struggles with Kitty's refusal at his initial proposal, because of her expectations regarding Vronsky and, additionally, as Levin meets resistance from his serfs on implementing agricultural reforms. Throughout these trials, Levin's basic optimism remains in Cameron, as we see once the occlusions are lifted.

Altman delightfully embodies Kitty's youthful enthusiastic rise and mercurial and dramatic collapse—after being wooed and then shocked and heartbroken by Vronsky turning his affections to Anna—as well as Kitty's torment over hurting Levin.

Like Chekhov, Tolstoy employs a sublime sense of humor in mocking the nobility, which reaches its height in the gossip zingers delivered with vituperative pleasure by Kate Gleason as Mother Scherbatsky. Brooks Garvey is terrific as the thoughtful young boy, Seriozha, who must deal with his mother's disappearance and his father's duplicity regarding her.

Gareth Saxe as Nikolai and Diana Dresser as Marya
Gareth Saxe as Nikolai
and Diana Dresser as Marya
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Aspects of the relationships among the nobility are echoed in Nikolai (Gareth Saxe) and Marya's (Diana Dresser) dynamics. Nicholai is Levin's brother, whose brand of reform and judgment of serfs he rejects, while embracing the ideas of socialism. He suffers from alcoholism and consumption. Marya, a peasant, is his vigilant and devoted wife. The verisimilitude of Nikolai's illnesses is visceral, deftly serving Saxe as a gritty springboard for Nicholai's philosophical musings and his criticism of Levin's ideas and lifestyle—all of which is amplified by Dresser's earthy gravitas as his caregiver and protectress.

The drama is played in front of Tony Cisek's elegant pillars, an enduring reminder of the rules and institutions of the day. Jeff Cone's costumes, particularly the dresses in the ballroom scene, are magnificent. What a thrill to attend a ball in late 19th century Russia! The entire spectrum of production details—the ensemble work, sound and lighting design, original music, choreography, and dialect—are equally refined.

Finally, MacCluggage's monologue in the culminating scene, where Anna's mental and emotional deterioration comes to a climax, is absolutely riveting and transcendent!

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Anna Karenina runs through February 24th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

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