‘Anna’ mythic, startling, tragic 

On the face of it, "Anna Bella Eema" is about an agoraphobic single mother and her preternaturally bright 10-year-old, Anna Bella, the last holdouts in a trailer park about to be demolished to make way for an interstate freeway. It’s a simple, all-American setup that naturally elicits empathy for the disenfranchised.

But that’s only part of what New York playwright Lisa D’Amour is aiming for in this transcendent three-hander now having its West Coast premiere at Crowded Fire.

Performed entirely by three women who never leave their chairs, yet conjure imaginative realms beyond what we normally see — or hear — onstage, "Anna Bella" is in fact anything but simple.

The richly layered story, with its mythic overtones, startling imagery and tragic and mysterious ending, is told — and vibrantly relived — from two different perspectives, by mother and daughter. In lyrical monologues in which every word counts — some lines sung as dissonant mini-arias or harmonies — it unfolds slowly as a series of interwoven tales that are comical, surreally frightening, even mesmerizing.

The lonely, home-schooled Anna Bella accidentally creates a Golem-like girl out of mud: the eponymous Anna Bella Eema. The mud girl becomes Anna Bella’s best friend — but she also leads little Anna Bella on dangerous adventures, in which she has apocryphal, coming-of-age journeys with humanoid forest animals.

Her mother, meanwhile, crouches in the trailer, terrified of the encroaching construction workers, whom she and her daughter see as vampires, and of a Frankenstein’s monster — disguised as a friendly policeman — who comes to persuade her to obey the eviction notice.

"Anna Bella" seems made to order for Crowded Fire, whose acting ensemble has always boasted strong female talent. And it’s directed by Rebecca Novick, Fire’s recently departed artistic director, who specializes in experimental plays.

"Anna Bella’s" three women — new Fire co-artistic director Cassie Beck as the mother, Danielle Levin as the daughter and Julie Kurtz as the mud girl and other characters — work in flawless harmony. Their voices are crystalline, every word and melody shimmering above the sound effects they themselves create using ordinary objects. Everything they do is graceful, resonant: their gestures and facial expressions; the way they twist, contort, straddle and perch on their chairs; the way they so fully inhabit their characters, both human and animal.

D’Amour’s beautifully crafted script, the luminous and transformative performances and Novick’s detailed, carefully calibrated direction coalesce in a production that stirs both heart and mind.

Anna Bella Eema ****

Presented by Crowded Fire

Where: Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes July 1

Tickets: $10 to $20

Contact: (415) 439-2456 or www.crowdedfire.org

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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