The Verdict Is In: A Review of the SCDS Production of The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women

By: Rachel Gilinski  |  December 4, 2023

By Raquel Gilinski 

The lights are still on, the audience has not yet arrived, and laughter punctuates the lively conversations held by members of the cast and crew. Everyone involved in this performance is deeply passionate about it, and it’s evident long before the characters even utter their first lines. Mere passion sharpens into craft once the house lights dim, the stage lights flicker on, and the Stern College Dramatics Society begins their performance of The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women.

The premise is as follows: at an all-female, strongly feminist theater company, actresses struggle to prepare for their performance. See, assigning roles is unfair and discriminatory, and they seek to smash oppression in the theater industry. Instead, each actress must learn all the lines for all the roles and draw lots on a nightly basis to determine which role will be played by whom. Despite their stated emphasis on sisterhood and equality, the interpersonal relationships between each of the actresses grow all the more tense—what else would you expect from thespians but drama?—and, when finally they perform the play itself, the rising tensions shatter the production before it even begins. The premise of the play-within-the-play is a courtroom drama, inspired by the real-life Romanov impostor Anna Anderson and the figures in her life who believed she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia—although, in this version, she truly was the real Anastasia Romanov—in which each of these figures is on trial for denying Anastasia her identity. The lines between the characters and the characters that they play blur at times, especially once they start going off-script. It’s humorous and multi-layered, and it contains difficult conversations about what defines one’s identity and what it means to take it away.

The layered plot, Inception-esque, isn’t even the most experimental part of the play. The fourth wall is repeatedly shattered; the self-aware script alludes to the agony playwriting can entail and pokes fun at itself with lines calling it “a pretty confusing play” and complaining that “everyone’s a critic.” The most unique element? The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women is an interactive play where audience input is not merely encouraged but entirely necessary.

The audience interactivity element is an extra challenge to the production. “It’s a tricky piece because the show changes every night, depending on how the audience votes,” director Leah Gottfried explains. The actors, of course, cannot predict how their audience will vote, and they had to learn different ways to perform several different scenes, shifting gears to either direction with no more than a few seconds’ notice. “I am blown away by the cast and crew,” says Gottfried, praising them for their talent and their “willingness to jump into something complicated and give it their all.”

“Everyone in this show is super talented. They’re all amazing actors,” says Dori Berman (SCW ’26), and I am inclined to agree. Each actress performs her respective role beautifully, resulting in a colorful cast of characters from ambitious prima donnas to shy, nervous wrecks. In fact, each character is practically color-coded. They begin as actresses at their all-female feminist theater company, dressed in all-black. Then, as characters played by characters, they receive a pop of color: a hot pink and a royal blue blazer for either of the two bold attorneys, fur and dazzling diamonds for the wealthy baroness, a quiet gray shirt for the bashful, hesitant bailiff—only the silent, traumatized Anastasia remains colorless, hiding underneath her black blanket.

The brilliant costuming decisions are the least colorful element of the show; from drunken Clara Peuthert’s quick retorts, to self-conscious Betty learning to see herself as a true actress, to fiery arguments between defendants in the courtroom and actresses onstage, the show is captivating and engaging throughout. “It’s a really interesting mix of comedy and drama,” says Berman, as she adds finishing touches to the props. “One second you’re laughing, the next you’re about to cry because of how tragic the characters’ stories are.” Each character has her own backstory, regardless of whether she shares it, and each of the SCDS actresses embodies her role with bold, consistent characterization. Physical comedy and witty wordplay lighten the show, allowing subtle, sincere messages—about how all the grand ideas about changing the world are useless if you neglect interpersonal kindness, or about how in protecting those who don’t deserve your protection, you necessarily neglect those who do—to resonate louder in contrast, without being too heavy to swallow.

In a scene filled with tension, where the actresses break (one level of) character to debate, mid-play, whether the script can or cannot, should or should not, be changed, the character Melissa argues, “There’s more to art than entertainment.” This line is, like many other facets of the play, deeply self-referential: as a work of art, it not only seeks to entertain, but also to ask difficult questions of its audience. In a patriarchal world, should women attempt to change the status quo by playing by the patriarchy’s rules, so they aren’t shot down, or should they stand straight and challenge the patriarchy head-on, at the risk of alienating an audience who may have otherwise respected the larger cause? How valuable is your identity, and who gets to define it? Do women owe one another loyalty on the basis of their womanhood, and what does loyalty entail, and what are the respective risks of contributing to or abstaining from sisterhood? Is sisterhood a myth? Does passivity in the face of injustice make you a perpetrator? Should the law seek to preserve the rights of the accused or the rights of the survivors? To which extent can events in your past exempt you from being held accountable for your actions?

I wonder—the play does not take a stance vis a vis the philosophical political conversations that the script itself brings up. Is the open-endedness of the plot and the arguments it raises an invitation to viewers to dig deeper into the philosophies it holds, to truly think about the way they think, to confront their own hypocrisies and give grace to those who have reached different conclusions after grappling with the same difficult questions? Does The Anastasia Trials‘s voting structure, wherein the audience dictates the direction in which the story goes and how the case is closed, make a claim that morality and mentality not only is, but should be, dictated by the masses? Or is it an acknowledgment of the complexities of conversations surrounding forgiveness, identity, feminism, and rightful consequences? Is it answering the questions with the acknowledgment that they have no right answer—that there are merits and flaws, inconsistencies and redeeming qualities, to many different approaches to the argument?

The court case in the play is centered on the underlying question of what “identity” means and who defines it. Gillian Herszage (SSSB ’24), SCDS President and The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women actress, boils it down simply. “Our choices define our identities,” says Herszage. “It’s up to us.”

If we define our own identities, do we not define our own philosophies as well? Perhaps the play, in its overwhelming intersectionality and its refusal to favor one perspective over another, intends to leave the audience with this very message. The show is not here to tell you how to think, but to tell you that there are many different ways you can choose to. To spoon feed the audience with the approach that the playwright finds most enlightened would be to foist a philosophy, foist an identity, onto viewers—a direct contradiction of what the play itself stands for.

Written by Carolyn Gage, directed by Leah Gottfried, and performed by the Stern College Dramatics Society, The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women will be performed on Sunday, December 3, Tuesday, December 5, and Wednesday, December 6. Tickets are available for purchase here.