thinking about the visual aspects of anna karenina
It's a nice night when you and your husband go out to the theater to see Anna Karenina and then come home and lie on the bed with a bowl of popped-on-the-stove popcorn and watch Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina and then go to sleep singing back and forth, trying to remember all the words to the theme from the Brady Bunch. I don't know where that last part came from, but when I finally burst out with the unremembered part about they were four men living all together, and Stephen laughed out loud and said we had to sing it all the way through, I felt very happy.
I didn't come here to talk about the Brady Bunch and put that song in your head... sorry.
But watching the movie in black and white got me thinking about color and the visual and how it was used in the play. Portland Center Stage's production is quite ambitious in its take on the book, blasting through much of Tolstoy's seven hundred something pages in just a couple theater hours, and because of this, the set is fairly abstract and doesn't change - at least there aren't different pieces that move in and out to create different rooms. Change of place is done with a curtain, which I thought was really effective, taking a landscape that's sweeping and bringing it in to the intimate. As for that sweeping, change in scenery is done with light and color [and occasionally snow - it is Russia, after all]. As a former circus lighting director, I always notice the lighting in productions, and I particularly liked how light was used in Anna Karenina, setting mood and creating [again] intimacy, or excitement. There were times when the wash of color across Moscow [or St. Petersburg - the novel jumps back and forth between the two] went sepia, like an old photograph, reminding me of the transience of time and reminding me of what lay ahead in the story for Anna.
If you don't know what the climax to Anna Karenina is, I won't ruin it for you, but let me just say that when it happens on stage at the Gerding, it's pretty spectacular - and again, it's done with color and light.
The costumes, too, are well done. Stephen knows his history, and he says that as well as being beautiful, they're also accurate. The corsets, the hairdos, the jewelry, details on the dresses - everything looked correct for its time and place.
One thing Stephen pointed out to me, which I thought was interesting, is that a lot of the dresses were used doubly. One skirt but two different bodices. He said this is an effective way to be economical in costuming but that it's also accurate. At that time, ladies often had two different bodices for one gown - one for day wear and one for more formal evening wear - and the differences in the two styles were correctly used in the PCS wardrobe.
Above is Kelley Curran, who played Anna. She was brought in at the very last minute when the original Anna had to leave the production. Not only that, but she basically just closed in PCS' production of Cymbeline and jumped right into Anna Karenina. I was amazed at the job she did. Stephen and I also saw Cymbeline, and I thought she was really great. I wrote about it here, in fact. Another of the visual aspects of a show is "blocking" - moving the bodies about on the stage. Effective theater uses blocking along with set and light to direct the eye. With all the intricate blocking and the large cast of Anna Karenina, it's impressive that Ms. Curran was able to keep it all in her head and still embody Anna's character with grace, vulnerability and strength.
Anna Karenina runs through May 6 at Portland Center Stage.