The New York State Theatre Institute brings one of history’s mysteries to the stage in its latest production, “Anastasia,” which opens this Sunday.
The play, written by French playwright Marcelle Maurette with an English adaptation by Guy Bolton, is based on the life of Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Romanov princess, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II. The Bolshevik secret police executed the family on July 17, 1918, but Anderson claimed to have escaped the massacre.
The production first opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre on Dec. 29, 1954, and ran for 272 performances, closing in September the following year. In 1956, Hollywood made its own big screen version of the story, starring Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes and Yul Brynner and in 1987 a TV miniseries with Amy Irving and Olivia de Havilland.
In the NYSTI play, Anderson (played by Mary Jane Hansen), who was a working class laborer, ended up in an asylum after an explosion in the factory in which she worked. She told the nuns caring for her that she was the daughter of the last Imperial Russian family. Word of the claim reached Prince Bounine (played by David Bunce), a former general in the czar’s army and aide-de-camp of Czar Nicholas II. The prince concocted a scheme to get his hands on the fortune that the czar deposited outside Russia. If they could convince Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress (played by NYSTI founding member Eileen Schuyler), that Anna was indeed Anastasia, the money might be theirs.
No sure answer
The set shows a grand flat in 1926 Berlin, decorated with beautiful furniture reminiscent of pre-Revolution Russia. Bounine, a Cossack who Bunce says is a con man full of bravado, works on convincing the world that Anna is indeed of royal lineage.
WHERE: New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College, Troy
WHEN: Sundays, April 20 and 27, 2 p.m.; Fridays, April 25 and May 2, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 26, 8 p.m.; weekdays April 22-25, 29-30, May 1-2 at 10 a.m.
HOW MUCH: $20 for adults, $16 for seniors and students; $10 for child to age 12.
MORE INFO: 274-3256 or www.nysti.org
The question of “is she or isn’t she” is definitely there at the beginning of the play. NYSTI veteran actor and playwright Hansen read the authorized biography of Anderson in preparation for her role. “By the end of that book, I was absolutely convinced that that woman was Anastasia,” Hansen said. “Then, I actually changed my mind, because you can’t really argue with scientific evidence,” she said, making reference to DNA tests that were later conducted on the royal family, Anderson and Anderson’s kin.
Each character has made his own decision about the question. However, as the play progresses, a more significant and perhaps more relevant question comes to light. “By the end, the more important question that comes up is, ‘What is she going to do?’ It becomes less important is she really her or not, as the audience comes to care about the woman who is in this story,” Bunce said.
The question for Anderson in the story is whether she will do the work of creating a real life for herself or become an icon on the past to satisfy the romantic images that people have of the past greatness of the Imperial family and the bygone era of Russian royalty.
“For me, I think one of the main things I’m interested in is the exploration of identity,” said Hansen, noting that the same issue will be explored in NYSTI’s coming production of “Who Is Pippy Longstocking?”
Beyond the obvious question of whether Anna is who she claims to be is the deeper, more philosophical question of what makes a person a person. Is it his name, his family, etc?
“It’s a whole combination of things,” Hansen said. “Sometimes, it’s that inexplicable thing that drives you to do what you do,” she said.
Hansen said that the play is a great character study, and Bunce said that it has its humorous moments, too.
For the actors, this show was an opportunity to explore some of Russia’s rich history. Hansen notes that most people are familiar with the former Soviet Union because of the Cold War, but that there is a whole other part of Russia’s history that is fascinating.
Bunce also points out the concept of a culture in exile, which audiences will get a glimpse of in this play. Russians established communities in exile in Berlin and Paris after the revolution.
The play, a mixture of truth and fiction, ultimately leaves the question of Anderson’s true identity for the audience to decide.
Grand duchess or not, Anderson did end up benefiting from her claim. Before it came to Broadway, “Anastasia” was produced in Germany. After a protest via a letter from a small town in Bavaria where Anderson was living and subsequent negotiations, Anderson received some of the authors’ royalties.
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