Anna Karenina is currently onstage at The Stage Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex through Feb. 24.
BY CLAUDIA CARBONE
How do you condense a nearly thousand-page novel into a two-act play in less than three hours? Director Chris Coleman and the Denver Center Theatre Company make an admirable attempt at bringing Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s epic Russian novel published in 1878, to the stage.
The main story is that of Countess Anna Karenina (Kate MacCluggage), a St. Petersburg socialite married to a high-level government official 20 years her senior, who falls insanely in love with handsome cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Patrick Zeller) and becomes pregnant by him. With her husband Alexie Karenin (James Shanklin) unwilling to give her a divorce and being shunned by Russian society and the Russian Orthodox Church, Anna begins to unravel emotionally, and her life goes from bad to worse, ending tragically.
In the opening scene, Anna utters one of the most famous lines in literature: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This foretells the sub-plots of Anna’s extended family that weave prominently throughout the play. Besides family, other themes explored are betrayal, religion, marriage, morality, authoritarian government verses democracy, rural verses city life and the mores of 19th century Russia. At that time, divorce was very hard to come by and adultery had to be proven.
With so many main characters (20 actors total) and multi-layered stories, Coleman employs a bit of clever stagecraft to help condense and clarify the action. One is having the actors narrate the story during a scene. This “theatrical shorthand” of Kevin McKeon’s script is like having the characters turning the pages of the novel. The other is having two, sometimes three, scenes playing out at the same time on different corners of the stage. Also, part of the distilling process is having minimal objects onstage, and that works very well. The set and costumes are lovely.
The most memorable scenes from set designer Tony Cisek are the brilliant train sequences at the beginning and at the end. They get your attention and bring the story full circle.
While MacCluggage looks the part of aristocratic Anna, she lacks the frenzied passion of a woman so in love that she would leave her husband and son to live with her lover in disgrace. When she yells to her husband, “You repulse me. I hate you,” it’s more like when a child says that to a parent, not really meaning it.
When Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball, there’s no hint of love at first sight. In fact, Zeller’s unemotional Vronsky never acts like a man obsessed with love as Tolstoy portrays him, making one wonder: what does she see in him?
The brightest spot among the otherwise capable cast is Kate Gleason who gives a delightful performance as Kitty Scherbatsky’s mother.
Anna Karenina adapted by McKeon and directed by Coleman features MacCluggage, Zeller, Shanklin, Allison Altman, Kyle Cameron, Timothy McCracken, Anastasia Davidson, Gareth Saxe, Diana Dresser, Gleason and Brooks Garvey as Seriozha. It plays The Stage Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex through Feb. 24. Tickets: 303-893-4100; denvercenter.org.
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