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Royal Hunt

English Adaptation About The Last Russian Tsar's Daughter Stumbles in Fells Point

NO, THAT IS NOT UDO KIER: Richard McGraw (right) asks Beth Weber to look into his eyes in Anastasia.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/18/2008


By Marcelle Maurette, adapted by Guy Bolton

At the Vagabond Players through June 29

The first half of the Vagabond Players' production of Anastasia is a fiasco of over-acting that exposes the creaky machinery of this 1953 play by France's Marcelle Maurette, adapted by Guy Bolton into a West End London hit, and then into the famous 1956 movie with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. In Fells Point, the uncertain Russian accents and melodramatic poses make you less, not more, interested in the identity of the young woman claiming to be the long-lost daughter of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.

After intermission, however, the stage clears but for the production's two best performers. Celia Rocca is the Dowager Empress, the tsar's surviving mother and perhaps the grandmother of the woman who claims to be Anastasia. She stands on the parlor's oriental carpet, a mountain of a woman in black with piercing eyes that can be felt even through her veil. Beth Weber is the slender, self-composed claimant. She stands near the top of a curving staircase in a simple white blouse, content to have the empress do what she will.

For a moment neither woman moves or says a thing. They simply eye each other, as if they were opponents across a chess board. Weber glows with a strange confidence, even though her encounter with the empress is the severest test in her claim to the tsar's 10-million-pound inheritance, still unawarded eight years after his assassination. Rocca radiates skepticism as she looks this supposed imposter up and down, looking for the telltale sign and growing impatient when she can't find it.

It's the most riveting moment in the show, proof again of the power of understatement. Even when the two actresses trade lines, the tension is reinforced by the smallest of gestures and the subtlest of inflections. Which will yield first: the claimant's confidence or the ex-empress' skepticism?

Later on, Weber finds herself similarly alone onstage with Serensky (Ian Bonds), the doctor who took care of her at the Berlin asylum when she raved she was the tsar's daughter during her fits of delirium. When she recovered her health, she no longer claimed to be Anastasia and became the doctor's girlfriend. But now she has reverted to her wild assertions and the brokenhearted doctor is as worried for her health as he is for his own shattered romance.

Bonds plays Serensky as an Old World intellectual who is too dignified to make a scene and too idealistic to let a wrong go uncorrected. Bonds matches Weber's rare mix of understatement and intensity, but she reflects it right back at him, making clear both her lingering affection for Serensky and her growing belief that she actually is Anastasia.

She was known as Anna when she left Serensky and the asylum, but her poverty drove her to the brink of suicide. She was intercepted by the Russian Prince Bounine, who dragged her back to his Berlin house, where the entire play takes place. Bounine, "a scoundrel on a grand scale," according to the empress, is played by Richard McGraw, tall and thin with the sculpted cheekbones of an Eastern European villain--and uncannily like the former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer.

Bounine and his co-conspirators have been feeding the refugee Russian royalists with tales of finding Anastasia, the daughter who was rumored to have escaped when the Bolsheviks executed the tsar's family in 1918. Now it's eight years later, and while the refugees have been financially supporting Bounine's operation, the contributors are clamoring to meet the nonexistent girl. Just in time Bounine has found a likely stand-in, the girl from the asylum whose wild claims had stirred up interest in the case.

The prince has only a few weeks, but like Henry Higgins coaching Eliza Doolittle, Bounine drills Anna on every aspect of life at the Romanov court prior to 1918. But then a strange thing happens; Anna begins to remember things about that life that Bounine never told her. She claims that her amnesia is lifting like the morning fog and she believes she really is Anastasia. Could Bounine's imposter be the real thing?

There are moments, when Weber is alone with Rocca, Bonds, or McGraw, when it seems this contrivance of a plot might work. But as is so often the case when a small-budget theater attempts a large-cast production, the performances are too inconsistent across the many parts. One character seems a Russian aristocrat, but the next is clearly a Maryland amateur actor. The illusion is punctured and the opportunity lost.

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