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.


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