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THEATER REVIEW Anna Karenina
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-03-05

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Playwright: Adapted by Jessica Wright. Buha from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. At: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: $40. Runs through: April 8

Compared to his earlier War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy's thousand-page Anna Karenina may have been a light read for the Russian intelligentsia during the turbulent years before the revolution. However, while its tale of passion among the privileged continues to resonate in 2018, literary consumers today are more likely to encounter it within the abbreviated dimensions of its many adaptations—cinematic, operatic and balletic—making Jessica Wright Buha's tidy two-and-a-half-hour synopsis a welcome addition to the list.

Dramatically, the narrative recounts the connubial adventures of three aristocratic households, two of them already troubled at the very outset. Indeed, the errand bringing Anna, our heroine, to the big city of Moscow is an intercession on behalf of her philandering brother. No sooner has his wife been persuaded to adhere to her marriage vows, however, than Anna meets the dashing officer Alexei, with whom she embarks upon an adulterous affair complicated by her reluctance to divorce her boring husband—thus surrendering custody of her young son—and the inability of the illicit paramours to conceal their mutually obsessive attachment.

Since the tenets of Romanticism mandate lovers behaving in selfish and foolish ways, playgoers of less empathetic bent may opt to analyze the lessons in responsibility offered by Tolstoy, who presents us with problems—spousal age gaps, extramarital infatuations, self-defeating goals—and then proposes solutions, the consequences of which we can assess for ourselves. For example, in contrast with her emotion-racked kin, the adolescent Kitty Oblonsky willingly chooses to marry a childhood friend a few years older than herself—the shy and bookish Levin—but soon demonstrates a maturity conferring contentment upon their union.

Lifeline Theatre's technical staff proves likewise capable of delivering the miracles necessary to create grand-scale cosmology in a physically restricted space. Amanda Link's visual direction encapsulates a child's anguish in a wooden-faced marionette, the pains of parturition in a red-stained bedsheet and the progress of Anna and Alexei's fatal liaison in a pas de deux endowing a Mazurka's marching-drill choreography with the smoldering sensuality of a tango. Joanna Iwanicka embellishes her constructivist scenic design with motifs drawn from the radical Symbolist Art movement of the period, while Izumi Inaba's wardrobe spans pre- and post-World War I fashions, both hinting at the era of social emancipation to come.


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