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10, Apr 2017
Cast of Anna, photo by Dave Sarrafian

Anna Karenina re-imagined by EgoPo

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Anna, based on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, adapted and directed by Brenna Geffers. EgoPo Classic Theater, April 2017.
 

Ego Po’s latest production uses an innovative approach to a Russian classic and still communicates its original, intended essence. That’s a difficult trick, and the company has succeeded.

Unlike the popular movie versions of Anna Karenina, Brenna Geffers’ production gives ample attention to the people who surround the title character. It balances Anna’s extra-marital affair with a host of social and political topics, such as the decline of the old aristocracy, land-owning versus city life, the introduction of elected local governments, the allure of western culture, the emancipation of serfs and the yearning for emancipation of women.

Neither the 1935 movie starring Greta Garbo nor the 2012 film with Keira Knightley (nor the silent 1927 Love with Garbo and John Gilbert) came close to expressing the sweep of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.

This EgoPo production moves swiftly (and eliminates long speeches) as it touches on all those topics. Geffers’ concept places all the action in one set that includes tree trunks and branches, tents, oriental rugs, suitcases, a samovar, goblets, and a Russian music box. We are apparently at a gathering of actors in the heart of Czarist Russia and we see and hear them relate Tolstoy’s drama. This is faithful to the source, because Tolstoy narrated his story in the third person, with an omniscient perspective, when it was first published in a Russian periodical.

The actors describe their characters and paraphrase what they are feeling, then segue smoothly into dialogue. The effect is similar to what we heard in the musical Ragtime where, for example, the mother says “The house on the hill in New Rochelle was mother’s domain. She took pleasure in making it comfortable for the men in her family and often told herself how fortunate she was to be so protected and provided for by her husband.” (The feelings of Doctorow’s Mother, circa 1900, are eerily similar to those of Tolstoy’s Anna in the 1870s.)

Geffers wrote the script with input by members of the cast, and she directed with imaginative fluidity. Cast members hummed background music, sang Russian songs, and supplied the sound effect of railroad trains.

Colleen Corcoran was an Anna you could relate to. Instead of looking like a Hollywood stunner, she properly appeared to be a mature woman who was reasonably attractive. Anna, after all, is a mother and a loyal friend, not concerned about her own looks. At the start, she comes to comfort her sister-in-law who has discovered her husband’s infidelity — which prefigures Anna’s own later situation. Anna tactfully persuades Dolly to forgive and keep the marriage together. By the end of the drama Anna has become isolated, anxious, paranoid.

Andrew Campbell played Count Vronsky, Anna’s lover, with gold epaulets on his red military vest, a bright smile, and with self-important swagger. Carlo Campbell was the husband Karenin, more interested in his governmental career than in satisfying his wife’s emotional needs, who cruelly orders her to break off her affair or lose custody of her son.

Amanda Schoonover was sympathetic as Darya (“Dolly”), the long-suffering wife of Anna’s brother Stiva, who was well-played by Shamus Hunter McCarthy. McCarthy doubled as the Princess Betsy, Vronsky’s rich cousin.

Arlen Hancock was impressive as Konstantin Levin, a wealthy land owner who is looked down upon by Moscow’s elite for preferring to live in the country. As Levin voices his opinions on social and political matters, he seems to be Tolstoy’s alter ego (Lev was Tolstoy’s Russian name.) Princess Ekaterina (“Kitty”), Dolly’s young sister who is pursued by Levin, was handled nicely by Maria Konstantininidis. Lee Minora completed the cast in multiple roles.

The set was by Aaron Cromie and Joe Wozniak, costumes were by Natalia de la Torre, and choreography was by K.O. DelMarcelle.

The aim of EgoPo Classic Theater is to convey theatrical emotion expressively, with an emphasis on body movement. The troupe has used this method to create a series of memorable productions. Its survey of American classics (Williams, Miller), plays by women, and Russian masterpieces have brightened the last three theatrical years. Most recently, EgoPo did a superb The Seagull, with different cast members and director (the company’s founder Lane Savadove). This proves that the troupe has totally embodied its mission to the point that it turns out consistently impressive product.