Portland Center Stage goes high, wide and handsome in ‘Anna Karenina’

Hiya, Count! Michael Sharon smooches Kelley Curran in “Anna Karenina”/Photo: Patrick Weishampel

A few days before opening night of Portland Center Stage’s grand fast-forward through “Anna Karenina” (hey, 700+ pages of Tolstoy condensed to under 3 hours of stage time!), I read a lengthy story by Rachel Swan in the East Bay Express about how theater is shrinking. From her vantage point in a major theater center, San Francisco and environs, she’d watched as the Recession trimmed budgets, cast sizes and ambitions at the theaters she covers, some of the biggest and most respected in the country.

The problem pre-dated but was accelerated by the Great Recession, I think, but her well-reported observations make perfect sense. As resources have shrunk, producers have chosen smaller shows and commissioned playwrights to write small-cast plays with fewer technical demands. Swan continues:

“And since smallness begets smallness, it manifests in all parts of the theater ecosystem. Actors complain they can’t find enough ensemble work. Writers whittle their cast sizes. Artistic directors privilege small-scale shows that won’t drain their coffers. Audience members are trained to like sparse material, even if it sacrifices ambition for thrift.”

So, as I sat down with my program, I counted the number of actors in Seattle playwright Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of “Anna Karenina” — 17. And of the 17, 11 were members of Actors’ Equity. I soon saw that the costumes they were wearing (designed by Miranda Hoffman) were gorgeous, and as director Chris Coleman had told us in the pre-curtain talk, the actors made 87 costume changes… in Act One alone.

The set (designed by G.W. Mercier) wasn’t “naturalistic,” because the sweep of the novel requires lots of locations and keeping things more abstract is necessary, but it was smart and looked beautiful, too, with its massive columns, moving curtains and the ability to play “train” two different ways!  It had original music and choreography (Randall Tico and Eric Skinner), and heaven knows how many lighting cues there are (well, lighting designer Ann Wrightson and stage manager Jeremy Eisen know, I suppose).

Which is all just to say that Center Stage’s “Anna Karenina” does not fit the profile of Swan’s story. It’s big and wide-ranging, an ambitious undertaking that doesn’t stint on resources as it dives into Tolstoy’s tragedy. It also weaves in the major subplot of the novel, the development of the social philosophy of Levin (a stand-in for Tolstoy himself in many ways) and his courtship of Kitty. And although it can’t possibly achieve the density of the novel (supplied by words and our imaginations), it takes a serious run at it.

But am I in the audience, shaped by a diet of “little theater” during the past decade or more, too remote from its pleasures, as Swan suggests?  Because that one rang true, at least a bit. Let’s see.

*****

A lot of drama in this production, which was developed last summer at Center Stage’s JAW new play festival, occurred offstage, when right before the original opening night, actor Katy Selverstone had to leave the role of Anna because of illness. Fortunately, the plucky Imogen from “Cymbeline” was on hand! Or really, the actor who played Imogen up until Sunday night, Kelley Curran. Curran had a short time to learn the lines and the intricate blocking of the scenes, and then inhabit the aristocratic Anna Karenina, content with her bloodless marriage until one Count Vronsky shows up at the train station to fetch his mother, who happens to be on the train with Anna.

Curran brought the sturdy practicality of Imogen with her to “Anna Karenina,” a nobility more inner than exterior, more about character than bloodlines, which works extremely well with the early scenes in “Anna Karenina.” In those scenes we are introduced to her husband Karenin (Keith Jochim), who couldn’t be more aggravatingly affected and formal, and then watch Anna negotiate a rapprochement between her brother Stiva (R. Ward Duffy) and his wife Dolly (Laura Faye Smith). Stiva’s been cheating, and Anna talks Dolly out of leaving the safety of her marriage, especially since she still has some feelings for Stiva.

A little foreshadowing there, right? “Anna Karenina” can be seen as a series of comparisons. Dolly and Anna, Anna and Stiva, Anna and Vronsky (Michael Sharon), Dolly and Karenin, Vronsky’s mare and Anna, though that last one is a symbol more than a comparison. Practicality and Romance. And maybe most pertinent, Old Anna and New Anna.

Because you know the story, right? Anna can’t walk away from her love for Vronsky. Unfortunately, she can’t walk away from her love of her son, either, who will remain with her husband unless she relents and gives up Vronsky. That’s just the way Russian society works.

Kelley Curran and Michael Sharon get past the hand-kissing stage./Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Watching Curran deal with the conflict is the greatest pleasure the production affords, how fragile and vulnerable she becomes as the conventional crushes her flight to happiness. And yes, I’m in agreement with Marty Hughley’s assessment of  Curran’s performance: “Learning the lines for such a large role in less than a week is one thing; so quickly inhabiting a character with such depth and nuance and naturalness scarcely seems possible.”

Other pleasures include the ensemble actors in their multitude of roles (including Portland stalwarts Michael Mendelson, Gretchen Corbett, Leif Norby, Maureen Porter and Val Landrum), the comedy that sneaks in (often by way of Duffy and Jochim, Corbett and Mendelson), the general ebbing and flowing of action onstage (managed so well, among so many other things, by Coleman), Sharon’s trip with Vronsky, and the byplay between Kayla Lian as Kitty and James Farmer as Levin. The real Tolstoy gave his diaries, full of details about his previous dalliances,  to his prospective bride, just as Levin gives his to Kitty. (Show of hands: Who would even think of doing the same?)

And for me, some of the voices. I’m thinking of Curran, specifically, her clear mezzo so adaptable to the stresses of Anna, and of Porter, whose pitch may be a trifle lower and is practically golden. Sometimes I forget how important the vocal instrument can be in theater, especially more epic theater such as “Anna Karenina,” but they reminded me.

*****

Epic theater: I’m not using it as a technical term that we might associate with Brecht, though “Anna Karenina” has its share of dialectics, political implications and central moral point. Actually, I guess I’d say that this “Anna Karenina” blends the naturalism of Stanislavsky with a more presentational style, characteristic of the epic. No,here I mean epic in the vernacular — big, wide-ranging, ambitious.

Which gets us back to Swan’s story about the disappearance of that sort of thing in San Francisco. I have two quick responses.

1. Both Coleman and his predecessor Elizabeth Huddle kept “big” theater alive at Portland Center stage, which is our biggest theater, after all. During her years here, I recall Huddle’s biggest shows the most vividly—”The Rivals” (with original music by PDQ Bach) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (with its fairy kingdom lifted off the stage and played on trapezes). And Coleman has done even more of them, big musicals and large-scale adaptations (the Ken Kesey duo of “Sometimes a Great Notion” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” for example), even in the teeth of the Great Recession.

I’d venture that Big Theater is part of Coleman’s artistic director DNA, and so, no, though we’ve seen small shows on the Main Stage at Center Stage (“Red,” mentioned in Swan’s article, played recently here, too, and it’s a two-hander), I can’t imagine that he would give those shows up easily.

2. I confess that my steady diet of smaller theater has made these larger shows more difficult for me to process. I’ve tended to toss them into the same pile with touring Broadway musicals, pleasant enough maybe but remote from the bitter, close-up one-on-ones I’m used to, the plays that rip off the scabs of our relationships with each other, with the audience a matter of feet away from the de-scabbing. The same thing happens to me at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sometimes: The machinery of a production commands my attention more than the subject at stake.

This season’s “Oklahoma!” turned me around on this, I think, by dint of its conceptual audacity (populating those American plains with African Americans) and its sheer glorious volume, those voices lifted in song. I started to realize how much more the name “Oklahoma!” conceals than, say, “Red.” “Red” is a fine play, but its challenges are of a different order of complexity, relying on the talent of the individual actors almost exclusively (though, yes, nice set!).

“Anna Karenina” demands that you adjust your vision, gaze across the entire savannah, er, steppe, instead of doing the microscopic drilling of smaller, psychological dramas. And yes, it demands a different sort of acting, too, fewer details but the ones that survive have to count more. Curran is terrific at this, which is why this production works so well. But still, the pleasures in general are different ones, which seems obvious, but when you’re in your seat in the dark, well, adjusting your scales and standards is one of the last things you want to be doing, right?

*****

Little theater can be epic, too. I’m thinking of the one-man “The Iliad” adapted by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson that Center Stage did last season and Artist Repertory Theatre’s “(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi” this season,  which makes sense because they are based on classics, but also Portland Playhouse’s production of “The Brother Sister Plays,” though not its “Angels in America,” which should have that feeling and didn’t, despite some good acting.

I’d venture that Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is too, but this train ride is almost over and I don’t want to derail it.

And big theater can seem so close. In this case, the proximity of conflicting desire and madness. Anna, so wise, stable and practical, can’t negotiate her terms with herself and can’t negotiate them with her husband (who insists both on custody of their son and not granting her a divorce), she can’t go forward with Vronsky, and she can’t go back to Moscow, society being what it is, cruel and two-faced. We watch her crash into the various walls that contain her, in a few deft scenes. We know how this story ends, even if we haven’t read our Tolstoy. It’s famous.

Of course, that’s not the way the novel ends. Like Shakespeare, Tolstoy took his time gathering the loose ends of the novel. Anna was a loose end, but so were all the other characters. But McKeon has it right, I think, for the theater, for our time.

The true epic thinks about everyone, not just Achilles, not just Odysseus. It asks that we enter many bodies and minds, not just one or two. And yes, our cultural currents run in a different direction, one that needs correction, perhaps, for our own mental and social health.

So, now, I suppose I’m arguing for “Anna Karenina” as an antidote, which is a little strange, yes? But increasingly, that’s how I’m thinking about theater these days.

One Response.

  1. WL Fewster says:

    Bravo! Some of the best live theater we have seen in years and one of PCS’s best productions ever. Great performances all the way through. Give us more of this!

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