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One night last week, I was chosen for jury duty by the Brazen-Faced Varlets.

Well, not a real jury, but a pretend one for a bit of fictional, history-bending business at a play – “The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women” – by the feisty, fearless feminist writer Carolyn Gage. I came as a spectator, hopefully left as a decider of right and wrong.

The “trial” unfolds in the claustrophobic back room at Rust Belt Books. Charges have been brought against five women, accusations ranging from physical and verbal abuse to negligence, lies, betrayal and denying a girl’s identity, all causing severe mental woe. The five, some chic, some well-worn, take their place in the docket. They wait to testify.

There is a witness stand of sorts, a bumbling bailiff, a defense attorney, a prosecutor and a plaintiff, one Anastasia Romanov, the daughter and sole survivor of a 1918 murderous rage against Russian Czar Nicholas II and his family. Severely injured and bloodied, she escaped by hiding on a hay wagon, ultimately surfacing in Germany, there to be confined at a mental institution for her crazed ramblings about Bolsheviks, imperial families and coups. That’s the story Gage and BFV’s version explored on this night, along with other theories. Actually, DNA testing in 2007 on exhumed bones proved to be those of Anastasia and a brother; however, rumor, myth and conjecture survived for decades.

Here, in this imagined courtroom, Anastasia sits, her head and face covered by a shawl, listening to her friends and family, her nannies and tutors, try to explain themselves and their actions, political and personal agendas exposed in the process. They worry, whisper and weep. The play’s audience, ready and rapt, also listens.

Before the story gets serious, you should know that “Anastasia Trials” is a play-within-a-play, a “meta-play,” as it is known, readied by a ragtag, catty acting troupe calling themselves the Emma Goldman Theater Brigade, their namesake none other than the angry, late 19th century anarchist herself. Posters of Emma and some of her quotes – “Well-behaved women seldom make history” – look down on the goings-on, and the players, who are ready to draw their evening roles out of a hat, give homage to the fiery agitator, who, they think, would have blessed their feminist views, their anti-patriarchy.

The Brigade has its own problems, egos clashing constantly, and now the “Anastasia” playwright has added a new character just before showtime. Plus, two drama critics have been invited. One of the company, Marie (Kelly M. Beuth), rails against this idea, objecting against something called “the male gaze.” Calmer heads prevail. “This is women’s theater,” someone says, “and they’re men. They won’t ‘get it’ anyway.”

In truth, “The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women” is convoluted and complex. Long-suppressed information turns the story upside down often, including a final, heart-wrenching, vitriolic takeover of the proceedings by the anguished Anastasia (Marissa Caruso). When the prosecution and defense rests the jury – with red- and green-colored sticks raised to sustain or overrule – struggle to sort out, to judge. Tense moments.

Actresses Beuth and Caruso are both remarkable, particularly the raspy, eccentric, profane and unpredictable character that Beuth so marvelously brings to life, the former mental ward confidante of Anastasia, the mercurial sot, Clara Peuthert. It’s an extraordinary performance, but strong ensemble work is a trademark of the BFV sisterhood, and memorable minutes come from Heather Fangsrud, Jane Cudmore, Kerry Alsheimer, Sophia Howes, Virginia Brannon, Theresa DiMuro Wilber and Diane McNamara.

Director Lara Haberberger has superbly led this “Anastasia Trials:” casting, pace, space. The plays of Carolyn Gage are perfect for the Brazen-Faced Varlets and Haberberger, given her work here, seems ideal to take them from page to stage.

theater review

4 stars

What: The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women

When: Through May 17

Where: Brazen-Faced Varlets at Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St.

Tickets: $15

Info: 885-9535