A tiny space in a back room at Rust Belt Books on Allen Street in Buffalo, NY is the venue for The Brazen Faced Varlets’ production of Carolyn Gage’s The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women. It is an informal stage to say the least. Just ask the late arrivals who stepped through a door and into the small theatre and found themselves center stage during performance. They promptly sat in chairs that were certainly part of the set design. A cast member turned to them and rudely said “You can’t sit there – go sit over there” and pointed to the designated seating with all the authority of a traffic cop and without losing a beat of her monologue.
The Varlets, a feminist thespian troupe, were prepared and likely eager for any impromptu minor collision to occur in this reckless comedic tour de force, a play-within-a-play concerning the trials, both genuine and psychological, of The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
Before you envision Ingrid Bergman offering longing haunted looks to a movie camera, know that this Anastasia is a traumatized veiled waif who screams wildly at the mere mention of her history and behaves as though she needs a miracle worker and not a lawyer. She is played by a member of the bickering cast-within-a-cast who are mounting a theatrical production about a courtroom trial in which Anastasia accuses five women of denying her a rightful identity.
The production is falling apart at the seams as the cast bickers over everything and backstage shenanigans ensue. Two top critics are rumored to be attending the night’s performance debunking the theory expressed by several of the ensemble that “The patriarchal media never reviews women’s theatre!”. More theatrical clichés are decked out like vaudevillian vignettes. A young ingénue hopes to steal the spotlight from a seasoned thespian; the scriptwriter adds a new character moments before the curtain rises and informs the cast she herself will play the role; a stagehand with a phobia of acting is thrust onstage much against her will. It is a recipe for the broadest and possibly blandest of comedy.
Yet this production with all its silliness rests assuredly on the historical plight of equality for women and the very genuine sorrow of the raped and murdered Grand Duchess Anastasia and her pathetic impostor who was briefly the toast of the New York City elite in the 1920s. That this “Noises Off” farce could so seriously strike a humanitarian feminist vein in the midst of its outrageous comedy is a credit to its impassioned and energized cast and director, Lara D. Haberberger.
Diane McNamara playing Anastasia’s aunt and closest surviving relative embodies the entire fallen Russian empire in gestures of regal hollowness that turn the stage deadly significant however briefly. She offers a surprisingly touching account of her niece’s final days. Kelly M. Beuth playing a cussing bag-lady friend of Anastasia is as animated as an adrenalin-charged cartoon character, and as wise as theatrical bag ladies will be. She is an infused bomb on the verge of exploding. The entire cast performs well teetering between loud absurdist comedy and empowered feminist statement.
The audience plays judge and are asked at times to allow an attorney to proceed or be sustained, through the use of little stick women designating yes or no, handed out as the audience enters the theatre. It’s a cute gimmick that adds a childlike touch to a strange night of theatre wherein the audience exits with the dubious and possibly schizophrenic understanding that we are all Anastasia, Grand Duchess to The Tsar of Russia.
The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women runs through May 17 at Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen Street, Buffalo, NY.