Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Each unhappy in its own way"

Eric Gerard and Ilse Zacharias in "Anna Karenina"
     When I mentioned to a few friends that I had gone to the opening of "Anna Karenina" at the Lifeline Theatre on Monday, they uniformly expressed wonder that Tolstoy's massive classic—my copy weighs in at 968 pages—could be adapted for the stage, a marvel that deepens when you consider that Lifeline isn't some deep-pocketed powerhouse like Steppenwolf or the Goodman, but a scrappy shoestring East Rogers Park company that drapes blankets over audience member's seats because the tiny theater gets cold.
     Not only did they stage the show in under two and a half hours, but they do so admirably, mirabile dictu, thanks to strong performances by young actors and a coherent, stripped-down script that neither lingers nor hurries excessively.
     The whole enterprise pivots on its star, the dynamic and likable Ilse Zacharias, whose face carries the journey from wealthy Russian housewife and mother, hurrying on a train trip to repair her brother's marriage, shattered by infidelity, to agonized adulteress shunned by society and kneeling on the train tracks.
      Alone, she couldn't pull it off. But she's backed a cast so strong I feel obligated to mention a few  individually, so please indulge me. 
     I hadn't planned on reviewing the play—I just went for fun—so didn't take notes. But if I had, I'd have scribbled "John Malkovich-like" blindly in the dark to describe Michael Reyes's performance as Anna's husband, Count Alexei Karenin. Formal and dull, at first, his stiff hauteur cracks into an almost endearing desperation as Anna latches onto the handsome Count Alexei Vronsky, played with the requisite OMG charm by Eric Gerard. I'd have preferred Vronsky be more of a jerk, instead of almost immediately dissolving from supremely-assured rake into doting puppy—a tad inexplicably perhaps. One second he's dumping his adoring Kitty, played with surprising power by the diminutive Brandi Lee, the next he's buying tomatoes in Italy with Anna. Then pining for his club again. An inevitable result of all that plot compression, I suppose.
Dan Granata and Brandi Lee (photos courtesy of Suzanne Plunkett)
     The rejected Kitty soothes herself with Konstantin Levin, your standard issue tormented Russian character, obviously Tolstoy's idea of himself, gazing at his profitable estate and lovely wife and wondering why, why, why isn't he happy? Dan Granata does this so convincingly, for a moment I thought I was looking at myself in a mirror. Aneisha Hicks flies  under the radar during most of the show as Dolly, the wronged wife, only to soar with a bitter monologue reminding Anna that she had coaxed her back into loveless union while wheeling around to find freedom, for a time, herself.
     I can't mention everybody, though by this point it might seem that I have, but must applaud Michele Stine, charged with the thankless task of operating the lifesize puppet that serves as Seryozha, Anna's beloved son.  At first glance, one of those hmm-this-is-interesting directorial choices no doubt designed to avoid the near impossibility of finding a 6-year-old who can both act and stay out until 11 p.m. four nights a week, the audience immediately settles into the pleasure of watching Stine's expressive face go through the joys and panics of a child trying to understand a world beyond his reckoning. It made me wish this weren't an off-year for the Chicago International Puppet Festival, which is saying a lot.
     Kudos to director Amanda Link for how she transforms the bare, tiny stage into a variety of scenes—rail cars and train stations, ballrooms of whirling dancers and a racetrack filled with spectators. Soldiers gamble at a club, aloof pedestrians blow by the disgraced Anna in the frosty streets (Lindsey Dorcus is particularly chilling as Betsy, Anna's supposed friend, who cuts her for doing what she has been urging her to do and does herself). No set changes, barely any scenery or props—a bottle, a plate of cake—and we're in 19th century Russia.
     There are not one, but two births performed on stage, a reminder that the adaptation was written by Jessica Wright Buha as a new mother, with a baby practically on her lap. Without giving too much away, her "Anna Karenina" made me want to re-read the novel—it has been a while—to see if babies have the redemptive role in the book that they play here. My guess is they do; Tolstoy did, remember, have 13 children.
     My wife, often a tougher critic than myself, wished that Anna's morphine addiction had been brought out just a bit—we see her getting it in childbirth, then there is never any reference, and a few gestures might help explain her decline from pillar to ruin. She also was sorry that Hedy Weiss is no longer around to give it a "highly recommended," so did so in her absence. I agree.
     The motto of the Lifeline Theatre is "Big Stories, Up Close" and when you're sitting 10 feet away from the actors, they really have to deliver, and here they do, to such an extent that I felt the need to stand on a chair, whistle between my fingers and direct your attention to them. Then again, I prefer these small productions to the big Broadway dinosaurs regularly disinterred in the Loop, enjoyed "Anna Karenina" far more than "Le Miz" or "Miss Saigon." 
     The glory of Chicago theater is you can just show up almost any given night at one of dozens of venues and see something that falls between excellent and incredible. Lifeline doesn't score with every production—its 2014 adaptation of "Jane Eyre" left me unmoved. But Lifeline hits the bullseye here, big time, and deserves notice and patronage. "Anna Karenina" runs Thursdays through Sundays until April 8, and the Lifeline Theatre is at 6912 N. Glenwood.



  1. Gotta see it.

    I suppose they cut out the delightful post-Anna pan-Slavic trailing portion of the novel, that some critics, Neil included I believe, found tiresome and confusing.


    1. I'm not sure I've ever remarked on the end of "Anna Karenina." To be honest, I don't remember it. It's the last 50 pages of "War and Peace" that I've dismissed as a descent into epistemological mumbo-jumbo.

    2. Quite possible that I confused the two. I thought you said something about Anna when a new translation came out, but maybe it was War & Peace instead. There is, however, a lot of stuff after Anna dies that could be cut without much regret, I think.


  2. Yes. I revisited it a few years back and was had misremembered that it didn't end with the death of Anna. I expect you have to be Russian born and bred to really appreciate and understand the concluding chapters.

    It is, possibly, the greatest of the great 19th Century novels.


    1. The pan-Slavic (dare I say nonsense) was in the air when Tolstoy wrote Anna, I believe. The story up to Anna's death would make a great soap opera without changing anything that Tolstoy wrote. If the Russians don't want to do one (or haven't done one), I bet the Korean Drama industry would do a good job. 120 episodes or so and they could make the characters Korean without major alterations.

      The one scene that sticks in my mind is that when proud Prince so-and-so goes to his club and asks the servant who greets him how many "shufflers" are there, to which the servant replies, "Three, your honor, including yourself." But maybe that is in War & Peace too.

  3. It took me forever to finish "Anna", but I do believe it's the best novel I've ever read.



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