British playwright Helen Edmundson’s creatively liberal adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has its ups and downs in a sumptuous and exhausting production at Capital Stage.
Many consider “Karenina,” about an affluent woman in a loveless marriage who has an affair, one of the greatest novels ever written. Great novels tell great stories, but what makes them such powerful works of art doesn’t necessarily translate to other mediums. Specifically, adapting literature to the stage can be a tricky proposition because of what must get left out.
When the source material is an 800-page novel, there’s a lot left out in terms of the complex depth of the story and its poetic telling. Edmundson necessarily cuts several fringe characters and also trims thematic story lines to leave enough room onstage for two main, parallel stories.
The good and bad news about Edmundson’s play is what she includes, not what she doesn’t.
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The character of Anna, realized in a soulful bravura performance by Lenne Klingaman, has all of the sensuality, vibrancy and tragic sensitivity anyone could want. Klingaman’s vibrant, multihued Anna places much of the production around her in black-and-white relief.
Edmundson contrasts Anna with the story of Konstatin Levin (Brian Patrick Williams), a conscientious, philosophical landowner, as the two continually cross paths. Levin falls in love with the ingenue Kitty (Carissa Meagher), but she rejects him, thinking the exciting Count Vronsky may be interested in her.
When Kitty finds out Vronsky is obsessed with Anna, she realizes the mistake she’s made. Levin and Kitty eventually have the opportunity to mend and rekindle their relationship.
Levin’s spiritual quest and travails in love are necessary companions to Anna’s journey, as they are the two central protagonists in Tolstoy’s novel. Skilled newcomer Williams makes a strong Capital Stage debut as the spirited Levin.
While the the two leads are buoyed with excellent support from Scott Coopwood as Karenin, Anna’s bureaucrat husband, Rob August as her lover, Vronsky, and Michael Stevenson as her lovable rake of a brother, the self-consciously theatrical play lacks convincing drama.
As Anna finds herself drawn into a passionate affair with Vronsky, we see her life begin a long, inevitable descent.
The overlong play tells a repetitive, well-known tale of feminine woe at the end of the 19th century. As Anna and Vronsky begin living together – even though she is still married to Karenin – they can have no social life. Though he can still move about more or less unencumbered, she’s not accepted anywhere. The only hope is a divorce that Anna’s husband can grant, an offer he makes but later withdraws.
She slides down an obvious path to eventual destruction, but what makes that compelling in the novel evaporates into simple angst and occasional melodrama onstage. The eloquence of Klingaman’s performance can only elevate the production so far.
Edmundson and director Stephanie Gularte give the play numerous meta-theatrical tics and flourishes that don’t always activate the story intellectually. While they do nominally give location to the continually shifting narrative, they also remove immediacy from the action, which is set in the time and place of the novel – in and around Russia and Italy beginning in 1878 and continuing for several years after that.
The sounds of a rushing train and moving images cleverly projected on a backdrop push Anna and Levin to continually ask each other where their characters are as scenes shift. There is stylized movement and choreography (by Shannon Mahoney) that at its best conveys the essential eroticism of the story in Anna and Vronsky’s mutual seduction.
Jonathan Williams created the effective sound/projection design that supplements David Nofsinger’s moody, open set and Ron Madonia’s precise, dramatic lighting.
Placing readers or an audience inside characters’ heads, or omnisciently overlooking their fictional world, works differently when the characters are live and present onstage than it does in the imaginative intimacy of a novel.
This production has a strong creative nucleus and powerful performances that provide an substantial initial rush. The energy fades, though, as the handsome production levels off in its long, dark second half.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
What: Capital Stage presents Leo Tolstoy’s novel as adapted by Helen Edmundson, directed by Stephanie Gularte. With Lenne Klingaman, Brian Patrick Williams, Scott Coopwood and Rob August.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 23. Saturday matinees 2 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 8.
Information: (916) 995-5464 or www.capstage.org
Time: Two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission.