Facts, fiction mingle beautifully in NYSTI staging of ‘Anastasia’

Playwright Marcelle Maurette plays fast and loose with the story of one Anna Anderson, a factory wor
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The music between Acts II and III in NYSTI’s marvelous production of “Anastasia” is from Borodin’s “Polovetsian Dances.” But those familiar with the musical “Kismet,” which used Borodin’s music, will think instead of “And This Is My Beloved.”

‘Anastasia’

WHERE: New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College, Troy

WHEN: through May 2

HOW MUCH: $20, adults; $16, seniors and students; $10, child to 12 (recommended for 11 and up)

MORE INFO: 274-3256 or www.nysti.org

How apt! We have just witnessed a moving scene between the Dowager Empress (Eileen Schuyler) and the purported sole survivor of the 1918 massacre of the Russian royal family, Anastasia (Mary Jane Hansen), a scene in which the 80-year-old exile seems to be convinced that this young woman is her granddaughter, her last link to a blissful time before the Russian Revolution. In other words, her beloved.

Playwright Marcelle Maurette plays fast and loose with the story of one Anna Anderson, a factory worker and brief resident in an asylum who claimed to be Anastasia, but he (and his English adapter Guy Bolton) knows that both fact and fiction are at the heart of this story. If the motives of three ex-pats — Chernov (John Romeo), Petrovin (Joel Aroeste) and Prince Bounine (David Bunce) — to foist off Anna Anderson on the public as Anastasia seem merely mercenary, there are enough Russians in 1926 eager to believe, for patriotic and sentimental reasons, that beloved Anastasia lives.

A sleigh driver (Phil Sheehan) and a charwoman (Carole Edie Smith) are two such faithful, as is Prince Paul (David Gould), the once-upon-a-time betrothed of Anastasia.

So Maurette’s play, from 1954, becomes a study of identity. Even if DNA testing has since contradicted Anna Anderson’s claims, the question about who we are to ourselves and others remains fascinating.

Perfect casting

Director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder has cast this 14-member ensemble impeccably and creatively moved them around on Vaughn Patterson’s handsomely detailed set. Sheehan’s blindness is palpable; Smith’s passionate paean to Anna rightly has its moment center stage. NYSTI veterans Aroeste, Romeo, John McGuire and Ron Komora keep the play’s engine well-oiled. Anny DeGange, as a lusty German flapper, nicely contrasts with the world-weary Dowager Empress. Gould convincingly captures the spirit of an exiled young aristocrat willing to live with past plans because the present is uncertain. And David Baecker, Alexandra Tarantelli and Silvia Viviani ably round out the cast.

Bunce is terrific as a lifelong opportunist and cad. Here he is in Germany, an aide-de-camp of Czar Nicholas II, figuring out how to get his hands on his former boss’s $10,000,000 pounds. Slimy! Schuyler is — well, Schuyler. She’s a performer who can make as much of one word or gesture as a whole line. Her Empress is smart, lonely, ironic, but not bitter. When Schuyler’s Empress says to Anna, “And please, if it should not be you, don’t tell me,” you get a complete picture of this heartbroken woman.

Finally, Mary Jane Hansen. Interestingly, her portrayal reminded me of Saint Joan, a role this excellent actress tackled a couple of years ago. Both characters’ sense of self is shaded by the views of others, and Hansen shows this ambivalence superbly. Her Act I Anna is hesitant; by Act III she has discovered that she has not yet discovered herself. A performance with an arc.

Wonderfully staged, paced, and felt. Do see it.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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