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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matthew Lieff Christian and Sofia Lauwers.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
So triumphant is the sensory-deprivation nature of Anthem, the jolting Austin Shakespeare venture that just opened at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, that by the waning moments of its 95-minute running time the tiniest of changes land with the most breath-robbing force. A single, unexpected lighting cue sends your imagination soaring. Minute flashes of color elicit genuine gasps. And the evening's first utterance of a certain one-syllable word is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Rarely is immersion in one style, one viewpoint, this enveloping or this total.

This lack of compromises is perhaps the best news of Ann Ciccolella's production, which in almost all ways lives up to the standards of its adapter and, more important, its original source material. Jeff Britting has, in word as well as intent, captured in theatrical writing the indomitable personality and unmistakable voice of one of the most truly distinctive novels from one of the 20th century's most distinctive voices, Ayn Rand.

Though Rand has developed a (not entirely unearned) reputation as a fiery ideologue and rigid-viewed inventor of the philosophical system called Objectivism (as laid forth most famous in her magnum doorstop opus, Atlas Shrugged), Anthem reflects a simpler and more straightforward argument. Written in the late 1930s at the threshold of World War II but imagined even earlier as a response to her upbringing in the Soviet Union, it's a paean only to the supreme worth—and by extension the supreme power—of the individual, if one that comes by way of an incredibly Randian premise.

In some unspecified future, when people are compelled by their leaders to live only for others and not for themselves, a young man named Equality 7-2521—who possesses the heart of a scholar but the society-imposed vocation of a street sweeper—kindles an innate ability to create, think, and feel marvelous things that benefits others indirectly but may shift the universe nonetheless. His inquisitive and adventuresome inclination leads him first to an abandoned subway tunnel where he learns to pursue science and then to a young woman, Liberty 5-3000, who encourages enticing electricity of an entirely different kind.

Yes, it's a cry—and hardly a thinly veiled one—against the evils of Communism from someone who witnessed them first hand, and it fails to completely avoid the didacticism that so typifies Rand's fiction writing. But because her characters are somewhat more than raw symbols, Anthem is able to remain truer to them and their struggles than Rand's other two Big Books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. If you accept the totalitarian ruling collective against which he fights—admittedly, already a big "if" for many people—then Equality 7-2521 makes perfect sense, and Rand guides him to the properly uplifting, if still chilling, conclusion.

Britting, who also composed the haunting score that properly evokes both the submission and eventual release of the soul, has made few major sacrifices and no detectable concessions in his adaptation. (As he's the curator of the Ayn Rand Archives at the Ayn Rand Institute, this is not exactly surprising.) His dialogue—most of which was lifted straight, without so much as reattribution, from the novel—pierces Equality 7-2521's mind and traps you in his maddening psychology as well as the blistering, oppressive logic of the world around him. If it's tough to see out of any eyes other than Equality 7-2521's, so adroitly has Britting rendered the solitude and anguish of one man against millions that you don't have to.

Ciccolella's staging is appropriately dystopian in its own right, making full use of the jagged stage-length platforms of scenic designer Kevin Judge, the (intentionally) drab and formless costumes of Theresa Squire, and the shadowy lights of Jason Amato, conjuring the notion of a world as a cave into which only pinpricks of illumination ever enter. But so tight, so claustrophobic, and so disciplined is Ciccolella's work that you never accept it as less than genuine, and when it cracks long enough for someone to run and leap in a physical manifestation of newfound freedom, his accomplishment seems truly revelatory rather than manufactured.

The same, alas, cannot always be said about the acting. Though Sofia Lauwers is intensely committed as Liberty 5-3000, and supple of both speech and manner as the woman evolves from intellectual robot to dynamic free thinker, no one else quite matches her. Tina Johnson and Lelund Durond, who play a variety of roles ranging from robed authority figures to the aging inhabitants of the Home of the Useless, are broad, borderline vaudevillian, in their approaches and too often inject them with a comedy and lightness the roles don't innately support.

Matthew Lieff Christian works feverishly and nearly continuously as Equality 7-2521, projecting a reluctant physicality earn on that transforms into a winning flexibility later, and he's genuinely absorbing when focusing most intently on the man's journey of the mind. But Christian doesn't traverse the full range of emotions Equality 7-2521 experiences, and his tendency toward a one-dimensional, sing-songy line delivery makes his sweeping monologues and declarations of spirit less epic than they should be.

Even so, it's a tribute to Britting and Rand that these shortcomings don't keep everything else from packing a bracing wallop. By the time Equality 7-2521 has made his greatest discovery—himself—and devised a plan to harness it for good, you're every bit as wrapped and invested in his quest as he is. Rand's goal was to caution against the subjugation of self, and Britting has ensured that comes through here. But it also makes you feel part of something bigger: humanity's drive to innovate, explore, and not be satisfied with what's "good enough" when there's always the promise of something more illuminating and transporting just around the next bend.

Through December 1
Jerome Robins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street between 9th & 10th Aves.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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