Tolstoy’s classic tragedy makes for unexpectedly good theater

Just as you know going into “Titanic” that the ship is going down, so, too, do most of us know about the tragic ending to “Anna Karenina.” We may also have notions about a door-stop of a Tolstoy novel written for a long-ago audience much more willing to snuggle up with a 1,000-word book than today’s 140-character ninnies.

Yes, us.

Is it possible, I wondered as I walked into the Stage Theater at the Denver Center Friday night, to pull off a stage version of “Anna Karenina” that was entertaining, not too depressing and that didn’t feel like you’d accidentally signed up for “Russian Lit 405” when you meant to take that pass-fail class on the history of vodka?

Confession: I’ve never read “Anna Karenina.” Thought about it, read a chapter or two and then forgot it on the shelf next to my also-unread copy of “The Brothers Karamazov.” Someone once told me (or maybe I read somewhere) that to appear smart at cocktail parties, you could simply memorize little factoids about great works that would give you the appearance of having read them. So if someone mentions trains or suicide, you can toss out an “Anna Karenina” reference as if, yes, you knew all about it from having read the book.

140-character ninnies, indeed.

But now, thanks to this DCPA stage version of “Anna Karenina,” you can get the whole story in just under three hours.

And what a story it is.

Grand production

DCPA artistic director Chris Coleman, who also helmed this show, uses an adaptation written by Kevin McKeon. Originally produced at Coleman’s former theater, Portland Center Stage, the goal was to faithfully reproduce the story while condensing it all into a two-act play. One of the tricks McKeon employed is having some of the characters insert bits of narrative between their dialogue to move the plot along.

This “Story Theatre” technique sounds odd at first, but as the play unfolds you find yourself getting used to it. Whereas it might have taken Tolstoy a hundred pages to describe the political leanings of Levin, the spoken narrative gets it out of the way in just a few lines. Since we’re immersed in 1870s St. Petersburg, these lines serve as plot lifelines, adding background and color to the action with limited interruption.

With the story presented in this clear fashion, we’re left to marvel at this astonishing production, which sets a high bar for stagecraft in every manner. From the extraordinary costumes (83 of them) by Jeff Cone to the fantastic lighting design by Diane Ferry Williams to the amazing set design by Tony Cisek and the pitch-perfect sound design by Matthew M. Nielson, “Anna Karenina” is a wonder to behold on the base level of what it looks and sounds like. Scene changes are seamlessly smooth, with frequent and effective use of trap doors and lifts quickly inserting beds, desks and tables onto the stage. Coleman’s traffic management of the large cast of 17 is crisp and flowing, with actors moving on and off a large, round stage with an enormous star in the middle — the points suggesting the many choices that confront the characters.

And the final scene, you know, the one with the train? It left the audience stunned. In fact, if the play had ended right there, I might have been satisfied. There is that last scene, though, integral to our feeling that life goes on and that sheds even a bit more darkness on the nightmare Anna’s life had become.

Star power

So many factors contribute to Anna’s unhappiness, despair and eventual madness that it can be hard to point to one as the straw that broke it all for her. But her excommunication from St. Petersburg society in the wake of her highly public affair with Vronsky seems to have been the prime factor. As we’re told at the top of the show, for the upper-crust in the city, the balls, parties and dinners were pretty much what life was all about. Deprived of this oxygen, Anna didn’t think she had much left to live for.

As Anna, Kate MacCluggage delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The actress, last seen at the DCPA in “Noises Off,” embodies every facet of this complex character and lets us into her troubled mind. We watch, fascinated, as she goes from more-or-less content socialite in a loveless but otherwise useful marriage to the deeply disturbed and despondent woman who throws herself in front of a train. Watching MacCluggage take the elegant and beautiful Anna and lower her into the depths, bit by bit, makes for a fascinating performance that culminates in a monologue that ranks up there among the best I’ve ever seen.

This production abounds with strong performances. As Anna’s husband, Karenin, James Shanklin adroitly moves him from the shame of the cuckold’s horns to the heights of forgiveness and back down again. Patrick Zeller is a perfect Vronsky, dashing in his blue cavalry uniform and matching MacCluggage on every bit of anguish and lovelorn moment. Providing some much-appreciated laughs, Kate Gleason dishes up some delightful snark as the judgmental busy-body Mother Scherbatsky. Also providing some comic relief as the much-cheated-on Dolly is Anastasia Davidson.

While the primary couple self-destructs, “Anna Karenina” comes complete with a more satisfying love story in the form of Levin and Kitty (Kyle Cameron and Allison Altman). Serving as the wannabe intermediary between Russia’s 1% and the serfs, Levin’s idealistic views on inter-class relations may not go very far, but Cameron plays him with a lot of heart — moving him from a stilted and clumsy suitor to perhaps-ideal husband and father. Altman is a standout as Kitty, another agonized character whose missteps nearly undo her until a helping hand in the form of Anna’s brother Stiva (a funny and perpetually guilty Timothy McCracken) puts her back in play for Levin’s proposal.

So, back to the earlier question of whether it’s possibly to dust off Tolstoy and make it relevant and enjoyable to an audience today: The answer is a resounding yes. Nothing Anna, Vronsky and Karenin deal with is much different than what a l