Igor Pauska, the production’s set designer, has laid down rusty tracks onstage that facilitate transitions between social milieus with some help from push trolleys that roll downstage conveying actors and props. Adding another, unexpected and visually dazzling dimension to all these horizontal proceedings is a grand piano — complete with player — which every so often descends from the rafters.
Frljic, a Croatian director, works wonders with the Gorki’s acting ensemble, whose ethnic diversity is a point of pride for the theater and a rarity on stages in Germany. Lea Draeger makes an initially chilly, reserved impression in the title role, working up quietly to reveal her character’s inner anguish and turmoil. The physically nimble Jonas Dassler, one of the Gorki’s younger members, is splendidly agitated as Konstantin Levin, often considered “Anna Karenina’s” other protagonist. When we first see him, toward the start of the production, he is struggling to make his way downstage with large blocks of ice fastened to his shoes.
In another memorably physical scene, twirling aristocrats at a ball trample loaves of bread under their feet. After the dance, Dostoyevsky’s starving peasants swoop down on the filthy scraps, greedily filling their mouths. Among them are Makar and Varvara, the tragic couple at the center of “Poor Folk,” and from this moment, the worlds of the two novels begin to blur.
The scene is hard to watch, but has nothing on the way Frljic stages the Steeplechase chapter, with Dostoyevsky’s peasants grotesquely forced onto the racetrack to stand in for the horses. What ensues is a lengthy scene in which the rich make sport of the poor’s suffering. At its hellish climax, when Vronsky, Anna’s lover (played as callous by Taner Sahinturk), takes a tumble, the peasant standing in for his mare is strung up and hanged.
After the intermission, the “Poor Folk” get their revenge. At the end of the evening, they turn Bolshevik, storm Tolstoy’s novel and take its protagonists hostage. “The Soviet soil is still wet with tears for Anna Karenina’s fate. This means the proletariat understands bourgeois problems better than they do their own,” one of the new revolutionaries cries out accusingly. Cue the firing squad!