Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Anna: How does a modern woman interact with a classic

How does a modern woman interact with a classic? Even if the actress can throw herself into the role, can the audience ever see her without adding a modern sensibility to how she is perceived?

Collen Corcoran as Anna and the ensemble
(Photo by Dave Sarrafian)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is one of those stories I know well, but I don’t know whether I have really read the novel or not. It is one of the formative tales of my coming of age, teaching me life lessons and cautioning me to beware of railway stations.

Between Tolstoy’s Anna and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert), I was predisposed to find marriage boring. and romance, while inevitably tragic, to be one way for a woman to express her individuality. Yet, both novels warn, the lover is not to be trusted, and the good man who waits for you at home is to be admired even if he would stifle your very essence. Perhaps Anna and Emma were the precursors to Thelma and Louise, warning women that too much freedom is a dangerous thing.

A newly conceived production of Anna at EgoPo Classic Theater company is helmed by writer/director Brenna Geffers, whose work always provokes me to reconsider how I view women’s roles on, and thus off, stage. This Anna, played commandingly by Colleen Corcoran, is strong enough to endure anything but boredom and betrayal, although she herself is a betrayer. Her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Carlo Campbell) is controlling and whining, while her lover Count Alexei Vronsky (Andrew Carroll) is all youthful charm, baring his body even if he can’t quite bare his soul.

The three parallel love stories — Anna and Vronsky, her philandering brother Stepan (Shamus Hunter McCarty) and his long-suffering wife Dolly (Amanda Schoonover), and the love-sick Levin (Arlen Hancock) who longs for, and eventually wins, Dolly’s sister Kitty (Maria Konstantinidies) — show us the pitfalls of loving too much or too often. No one finds complete happiness, only an acceptance that this is how things are.  

The play begins with a conceit — a group of actors, it seems, have agreed to tell this story, casting themselves back a hundred years. Bell bottom trousers hint at the 1970s, long gowns hint at the Russian past. The actors simultaneously play their parts, narrate their stories, and often comment on their thoughts. The shadow of current affairs lurks in the wings but never takes over the story.

Lee Minora and Arlen Hancock
with umbrellas as ballgowns
(Photo by Dave Sarrafian)
The acting is strong, the staging intriguing (scenic design by Aaron Crombie, costume design by Natalia de la Torre), encompassing town and county, train and ballroom. Oriental rugs and wood chips create a place that is everywhere at once. Chiffon draped umbrellas transport us to a ball. A small suit on a hanger is a child. Genders are fluid. A shawl and tiara transform a prince into a princess, a jacket turns a woman into a man. The players hint at a train through sound and motion, the swaying bumpy ride, the constant hiss and chug.

But what is this Anna about? With today’s awareness of gender relations and the position of women, what shocks the audience are not the kind of behaviors that were once considered outrageous, but the restraints put upon women by men and society. A woman can be shunned for having an affair. If a woman is divorced she can never marry again, we learn, unless she initiates the process and accuses her husband of infidelity. With all our modern freedoms, we can almost forget what life used to be like for women. Even if modern politics and policies seem to want to send us backward instead of forward.

The ways in which men determine women’s lives and choices is always present. If a husband divorces his wife, she can never remarry, unless she initiates the process and proves his infidelity. 

“Women never get to speak” says Dolly, yet there is pride in learning a woman strapped herself with a bomb to try and kill the Czar. It’s a surprisingly modern story from a Russian master, yet it sees women only within their circumscribed roles as wife, mother, courtesan.

The idea that these are women acting in a troupe transcends that limitation, but not much is done with it until the end.

For all its virtues, there was one jarring note — the sometimes raucous laughter from the audience. Humor exists in this story, some from the staging, some from the challenge of condensing a sweeping epic into a two hour play. But nothing seemed to justify the sitcom-type laugh track that erupted on several occasions.  Fortunately, the production was strong enough to overcome those moments.

Turning a Russian classic into an easy-to-follow narrative that engages and intrigues is no easy feat. Geffers and the ensemble have done that admirably while making the story and characters seem modern. It’s a production worth seeing and pondering. 

Anna: based on Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. By Brenna Geffers and the Anna Ensemble. Brenna Geffers directed. Through April 16, 2017 presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at the Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street, (7th and Spring Garden St.), Philadelphia, PA. 267-273-1414 or www.egopo.org

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