By: Sruli Friedman  | 

Arts & Culture: A Play Within a Play: A Review of SCDS’s ‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’

Art so often touches the borders of the aspirational. The poet or the dramatist may shamelessly impinge upon the domain of philosophers and moralists, weaving his or her tapestry of the innermost longings of human nature or the lofty heights of human ideals. It isn’t uncommon for a play, a seemingly descriptive representation of events, to trespass into the dimension of normative value judgements, to subtly or explicitly laud certain virtues or specify the path a society must take. But what happens when our ideals clash with grim realities, and it becomes clear to us how we inevitably must fail to instantiate in our own lives the elevated values for which we advocate?

“The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women,” written by Carolyn Gage and Don Nigro and performed spectacularly by Stern College Dramatic Society (SCDS), admirably tackles this question. The play within a play — which I had the privilege of viewing in advance Friday morning — follows a women’s theater company producing a rather unconventional courtroom drama, in which five women accused of betraying Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, the final surviving heir of the Russian Tsar, are tried in the ‘court of women,’ and charged with the heinous crime of denying Anastasia her identity.

The court of women is unlike other courts. It tries crimes committed by women against women, and the audience serves as judge and jury, guiding the trial and ultimately determining the final verdict. However, the women of the theater company have their own internecine struggles, ultimately leading them to turn on each other. Although the actors seek to play out the imagined conflict occurring in their script, they cannot resist the contention and intrigues among themselves from bursting to the forefront. The story of a princess tortured by those she trusted becomes inextricably linked with the stories of the actors, sending the play careening off script toward a startling new conclusion. By the end, the actors must contend with the proper role of feminism and the destiny of their company in a world in which their ideals of true equality seem chimerical and victimization remains inevitable. 

Despite occurring entirely within the confines of a single sparsely furnished set, like the famous courtroom drama “12 Angry Men,” the world of “The Anastasia Trials” seems far from limited. Rather than stretching itself across spatial dimensions, it probes the near-infinite depth of the human psyche. The audience can’t help but be swept up in the drama, which, brought to life by terrific acting, presents a window into the souls of the characters and the characters’ characters in all their manifold complexity.

Although explicitly catered toward adherents of radical feminism, the drama seems to furnish a fascinating philosophical object of thought even to those who don’t share its vision or who reject the premises it takes as axiomatic. While occasionally I found the script difficult to parse as one unfamiliar with feminist thought, and in some cases found arguments or ideas being put forth as objectionable, I definitely see its broader themes as easily comprehensible to those of a wide variety of ideological backgrounds. I would confidently encourage students to book tickets for the remaining two performances which will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday.