|The cast of Bad Quarto Productions’ Anna Karenina Lives! (from left to right: Rachel Marie Kemp as Anna Karenina, Kirsten Egenes as Sophia Tolstoy, Brigette Estola as Mae West, and James Overton) sings their curtain number. Written by Germaine Shames. Directed by Tony Tambasco. Choreography by Mike Canestraro. Musical Direction by James Overton. Costumes by Joanne Famiglietti. Photo by James M. Smith.|
But that's why we do new plays, generally, not why we're performing Anna Karenina Lives!.
Anna Karenina Lives! is the clearest departure from a Shakespearean play that we've done to date; all the others that we've done have had some connection, direct or indirect, to Shakespearean plays or dramaturgy. But of all the modern plays we've done, Anna Karenina Lives! perhaps best encapsulates the spirit of Bad Quarto Productions.
Anna Karenina Lives! is a musical vaudeville that remixes Anna Karenina, the life of Sophia Tolstoy, and the life and art of Mae West in a narrative that challenges the traditional readings of a novel that was voted "greatest book ever written" by a 2007 poll of authors in Time. Germaine Shames looks through the academic bravura of the novel in a way that even other stage adaptations have wrestled with, and looks to the heart of the eponymous character through the lens of the 21st century, exemplified by the century-ahead-of-her-time Mae West. The "standard" readings of Anna Karenina are offered only to be brushed aside as irrelevant to the needs of a 21st century woman, and Shames offers a template for reading the novel that insists that we read critically, and through the lens of our own modern relevance.
Anna Karenina is a novel so rich and large in scope that it defies easy description or summary, but even those who haven't read it will identify it as the novel where the heroine throws herself in front of a train. In creating a parallel between Anna's regrets and Sophia's, Shames asks the audience to consider the world in which that defining moment is avoidable, and Anna and Alexei Karenin are able to grow beyond their circumstances. It is a reading that dares us to imagine that to be human is the most heightened form of existence there is.
Shames's reading also asks to consider Anna Karenina through the eyes of two very different women, who were both pioneers in their own way. Sophia Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy's wife, who was a diarist and pioneering photographer, but who also lived to see everything she loved swept away by the Communist revolution, and Mae West, an artist and social activist so far ahead of her time that we still fall short of her sex-positive, Feminist philosophies have competing readings of the novel, and of the nature of reading. Sophia looks back in fatalistic regret, but Mae looks forward with the determination of an architect of the future: the former laments that a "flawless work of art" cannot be changed, the latter insists it needs to be.
Right now, we are all Mae West, insisting that the system needs to change. For centuries, our cultural narratives have been dominated by white, male elites, and it is a testament to the success of Liberal Arts education that individuals of every race, gender, and socio-economic class can insist that their narratives be heard. In presenting Shakespeare's plays the way in which we present them, it is partly our aim to liberate Shakespeare from the prison of high drama and English literature classes that elites have placed him in, and restore his work to its rightful place on public stages, warts and all, where Shakespearean plays can truly be for everyone. While we may sometimes fall shy of our goals to make our plays as diverse as our audiences, they are goals that we continually strive for.
And they are goals that any theatre company that hopes to be relevant in the 21st century needs to work for.
While Anna Karenina Lives! breaks the mold of modern plays that Bad Quarto Productions has presented, it confronts the most critical issue of the modern stage head-on: who are the classics for. And the play's answer is the same as Bad Quarto's: a resounding everyone.