ANASTASIA

Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2008

Believe it or not, when I was a very little girl, I wanted to be a princess. Upon learning that Americans couldn’t be princesses (Shhhh! Don’t tell Walt Disney or Grace Kelly!) I switched to wanting to be a paleontologist and then a playwright, but was told that neither of those professions was really open to women and that I should become a nice preschool teacher like my mother.

But that fantasy still lingers and is right now at the heart of an enormously successful and deeply troubling marketing ploy aimed at to young girls. What if you woke up one day and discovered that you were a real live princess? And without all that marrying a prince jazz. Just you, magically becoming a woman of immense wealth and power? Grown-ups know that the reality lies much closer to the tragedy of Diana Spencer than the happily-ever-after of Cinderella, but safely in between lies the romance of Anastasia. Could she have survived? If so, would she choose to reclaim her royal title and wealth, or would she seek a life of more meaning? Born a princess, an adult, post-revolutionary Anastasia would have had the amazing luxury and confounding moral dilemma of either reclaiming her title or choosing to live a “normal” life. Wow!

In reality, even if the Grand Duchess Anastasia or one of her siblings had survived the Bolshevik slaughter of the Russian Imperial family, they would no longer be alive today. Anastasia would turn 107 in June, and the youngest, Alexei, would be 104 in August. All the women who claimed to be Anastasia or one of her sisters during the 20th century have passed on, and with DNA testing we are now really quite sure that the entire family and their retinue died July 17, 1918, in the basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg.

On the basis of those cold, hard facts I was a little worried at NYSTI’s choice of Anastasia a 1954 English translation by Guy Bolton of a French play by Marcelle Maurette. Hadn’t this particular mystery ended long ago? I could see the educational opportunities the play presented, but was not sure it would retain its entertainment value, let alone its ability to engage a modern audience.

Boy, was I wrong! That princess fantasy just kicks right in and you don’t care that this could never have been real. What might have been a tired and tiring old warhorse of a play is fresh and fun and fascinating under the direction of Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder.

But Bolton and Maurette don’t ever tell us whether their Anna is the real thing or not, and it doesn’t matter that she couldn’t have been because this is a romantic fantasy with strong overtones of the Pygmalion story. Act I seems to ask: Can this Slavic Liza Doolittle be coached to pass for royalty? While Act II and Act III play with the question: Is she really Anastasia? And, if so, what will she do?

In it a group of grasping White Russians living in exile in Berlin in 1926 – Prince Bounine (David Bunce), Petrovin (Joel Aroeste) an artist, and Chernov (John Romeo) a banker – rescue a young woman named Anna (Mary Jane Hansen) from an asylum in Bucharest. She has made claims to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, a concept made plausible by Russian folklore to the effect that one of the Tsar Nicholas II’s daughters had survived and been spirited away by a guard named Tchaikovsky, and by the fact that none of the family had actually survived to challenge the pretenders.

There is a great deal of money at stake – money the Tsar stashed in banks outside of Russia to provide for his family should they be dethroned. The triumvirate who have rescued Anna team up with Anastasia’s putative fiancé Prince Paul (David Gould), to establish her as the real Anastasia and access the funds. While the trio plans to take a handsome reward for discovering and protecting her, Prince Paul will literally gain control of all the remaining fortune as her husband.

So it is easy to see why he is ready and willing to acknowledge her as Anastasia, but the ultimate test is her acceptance by Anastasia’s paternal grandmother, The Dowager Empress, Maria Feodorovna (Eileen Schuyler).

In reality the Empress never met any of the Anastasia pretenders, but here the confrontation between Hansen and Schuyler is the pivotal point of the play. Both women simultaneously want, and don’t want, to believe Anna is Anastasia. Whoever Anna was, she had suffered a serious head injury that made her memory unreliable at best. Both women are terrified of whichever outcome their meeting brings.

I think it is fascinating that the original of this play was written not only by a woman but by a woman with a title. I could not find out much more about Marcelle Marie Josephine Maurette other than that she was the Comtesse de Becdelièvre and she died in 1972. Whether she was born a Comtesse or became one through marriage, there is no doubt that she found in the possibility of Anastasia’s survival, which was considered a very real one in the 1950’s, the perfect outlet for her own feelings about the pros and cons of being royalty.

The woman known as Anna Anderson (1896-1984), among many other names, was the most famous of the Anastasia pretenders, and it is primarily her story that Maurette has chosen to dramatize, although the name Anderson is never used. It is interesting to note that Anderson sued for, and won, a share of the royalties to this work. After two film versions were released in 1956, her “autobiography” I, Anastasia was published the following year. Postmortem comparison of her DNA to that of close relatives of the Imperial family have not proven any genetic connection.

As I watched the play it is very much structured as the men against the women. The men want the power and the money, the women want the freedom and the dignity. The only man with even a shred of moral fiber is Dr. Serensky (David Baecker), a man Anna met and had an affair with in the asylum, and even he cannot do right by her. She has to make her new life on her own and on her own terms, without any men.

This is a cast of NYSTI stalwarts who can be counted on to turn in solid and enjoyable performances. Gould is perfectly pathetic as Prince Paul, a man willing to literally sell his soul, and Baecker makes a handsome possible real-life love match for Anna. Bunce is suitably slimy as Prince Bounine, clearly the villain of the piece, and Aroeste and Romeo make amusing cowardly comrades to his conniving. John McGuire is obviously having fun playing the bewigged Sergei, a rapscallion butler to Bounine’s housegold.

But this is a play about women, and Hansen, Schuyler, and Anny DeGange as the flighty Baroness Livenbaum, take advantage of the meaty characters and serious issues they get to play. Schuyler and DeGange form the comic relief in their brief scenes together, and, as mentioned before, Hansen and Schuyler form the vortex of the play in their Act II confrontation.

Vaughn Patterson has designed a handsome set, which struck me as more French than German and several times confused me into thinking the action took place in Paris rather than Berlin, but it is colorful and full of interesting nooks and crannies in which servants and nobility can lurk before appearing or disappearing.

Robert Anton has designed some absolutely gorgeous costumes for Hansen and Schuyler – both women look wonderful in their final scene together – but unfortunately his has selected absolutely the wrong hemline, hose, and shoes for Hansen’s Act II ensemble. 1926 was a very distinctive and stylish period for women’s clothes, as DeGange’s fun flapper attire proves. The Empress wears more formal clothes of an earlier period, as she would, but to put the grown Anastasia (she would have been 25 in the January-March period of 1926 in which the play is set) in her childhood garb of mid-calf skirts with shirtwaists atop jarringly anachronistic nude hose and late-20th century low-heeled pumps is just plain wrong. Until the 1920’s skirt length and leg coverings were indicative of a young woman’s age and social status. A grown woman of Anastasia’s rank would never have dressed as a child. She would either have worn the latest fashions or presented herself as a bastion of old-fashioned grace, like her grandmother.

The New York State Theatre Institute production of Anastasia runs through May 2 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children 11 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)

For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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