Anna Karenina - Theatre Review

Anna Karenina at Actors Co-Op Eva Abramian as Anna Karenina
Photo: Larry Sandez/Actors Co-Op

By Stana Milanovich

The Actor's Co-Op's revival of Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is long on possessive apostrophes but short on balance, and its handling of inequitable societal norms feels less progressive than the source material.

You enter the Crossley Theater to a heightened air of excitement as the production is staged in the round, which draws the audience towards the action and leaves the actors nowhere to hide. This may have exacerbated some of the issues of the play. The production does an excellent job of placing actors and directing action to increase the drama. The square stage with the audience on all sides has four large metal hoops ringed gorgeously with light hovering over each of the corners; there is not a bad seat to be had. The use of sound is quite well done, particularly eerie scraping hums and train noises, which helps keep the tension high. Benches become beds, train stations, nebulous regions of the afterlife. Veiled figures of death haunt scenes with occasional nooses thrown in for good measure. Keep an eye out for a really wonderful handling of the racetrack scene, probably the height of the production's use of all dramatic elements, and an excellent performance from the entire ensemble. In standout bits of acting, Deborah Marlowe who appears in multiple roles including Princess Betsy and Agatha, manages to liven things up with a sort of wry knowingness whenever she appears, and Bruce Ladd manages to make the difficult position of Anna's husband Karenin almost understandable.

Bruce Ladd and Deborah Marlowe Bruce Ladd and Deborah Marlowe
Photo: Larry Sandez/Actors Co-Op

So, stirring staging, good lighting, excellent sound, and well-placed ensemble moments...where then does this Anna fall down? To borrow from Tolstoy, if all good plays are alike, then all bad plays are bad in their own unique way. Edmundson's Anna Karenina comes to the stage with an exciting conceit: Anna's story is juxtaposed with that of Constantine Levin (Joseph Barone.) The two speak to each other about their disparate lives in a neutral supernatural realm perfectly in keeping with Russian tragedy. What a lovely idea, which should provide ample opportunity to allow us deeper access to the characters. Instead, it mostly provides an opportunity to double down on the shaming and censoring of Anna, and the lack of any balance becomes overwhelming.

While one would hope that the spiritual, mystic connection between Anna and Levin would provide insight into their choices, it mostly seems to provide the opportunity for Levin to censor Anna, as do so many other production choices in this play. The most egregious choice of this type is to have her lover Vronsky remain inviolate, his affections occasionally strained but unwavering, despite most version of this story eventually revealing him to be a womanizer. This leaves Anna's fears to be just the "demons" of her imagination, and her jealousy simply more histrionics. This very deliberate choice leaves a main character who has nothing going for her, not even the truth of her own convictions, and cuts out sympathy and even morality from the heart of the play, leaving us with little but a distant kind of pity.

In such a desperate case, perhaps a more deeply felt performance could rescue the character and so the play, but Eva Abramian seems at a loss from the moment she tells the audience she's decided to pursue the affair. Anna Karenina is deep, deep tragedy, but Abramian cannot seem muster more than bewildered sadness.  Frankly, it's difficult to blame the acting when the play has already so abandoned the character so as to make her motivation difficult to follow.

Anna Karenina Cast The cast of Anna Karenina at the Actors Co-Op
Photo: Larry Sandez/Actors Co-Op

In short, the actress seems lost at finding Anna's core, the rest of the company fails to support her efforts, and the production itself seems set against her. While I have to locate the play's problems upon the portrayal of Anna, doing so feels rather ironic, given that this is what happens in the play itself. Everyone blames Anna. It is all Anna's fault. Even other people's choices (to remain with their spouse, to pursue or not a different lover, etc) are pushed off on the character, who is then shamed for making any choice at all when all her options are, in fact, bad.

Almost thirty years after this play was written, almost a century and a half after the novel came out, I want something more for Anna, and certainly more from Anna Karenina. As a character, she does much that is flat out unlikable, and intended to be so, but Anna's humanity should be, and was always intended to be, visible, even among her bad choices, and even at the time of the novel's publication. That was part of the reason why it was considered revolutionary! This is evident in the novel and possibly in the play, but not in place in this production. Given how strong everything else is, it's a pity.

Anna Karenina runs through March 23 at the Crossley Theatre at Actors Co-Op, 1760 N Gower St.  Tickets are available by calling (323) 462-8460 or from

Posted By Stana Milanovich on February 28, 2019 05:33 pm | Permalink