When I saw Tom Stoppardï¿½s three-part Russian epic The Coast of Utopia in a one-day marathon at Londonï¿½s National Theatre four years ago, I thought it was intellectually challenging, stunning in its complexity and a bit of an ordeal.
An American production of this epic has just opened at Lincoln Centerï¿½s Beaumont Theater. The three parts are being premiered individually, several months apart, and there will be several opportunities to do the one-day marathon thing towards the end of the run in March.
The question for me is whether what was exciting when compressed into one day can still be satisfying when spread out over such a long time.
On the basis of seeing the new Part 1, Voyage, trimmed a bit by Stoppard since it first premiered and brilliantly directed by Jack Oï¿½Brien, Iï¿½d say ï¿½So far, so good!ï¿½
Whatï¿½s it all about? Russia, 1833--a time of intellectual ferment among the educated children of the decaying aristocratic class in the overall framework of tsarist repression. A place, Stoppard writes in a particularly pity passage, where ï¿½status is not measured in acres but in the number of serfs you own.ï¿½ In this production, the serfs are literally looming on the stage.
The focus is on the Bakunin family whose four daughters are unusually well-educated but still consumed by whether to reject an arranged marriage or whether to follow a lover abroad. The star of the family is profligate son Michael (Ethan Hawke) who, with a cadre of unusual friends, literally flits back and forth between lounging on the family estate, where Act 1 is set, and running a radical journal in Moscow, which is the site of Act 2.
In a typical Stoppard ï¿½trickï¿½, the events depicted in both acts are concurrentï¿½so the audience gets to see how different the developing situation seemed to the characters depending on where they were. This is theatrical cleverness of a very high order, which makes it easy to forgive some rather long passages where the intellectually-arrogant but immature friends of Michael babble on in epigrams like ï¿½When philosophers start talking like architects, get out.ï¿½
Bob Crowley and Scott Pask have created open and absolutely gorgeous sets on which the action takes place. The ï¿½ice sculptureï¿½ of St. Basilï¿½s which signals that we are in Moscow in Act 2 is one of the most beautiful objects Iï¿½ve ever seen on stage. These treats are matched by the alternately elaborate (for the women) and scruffy (for the young men) costumes by Catherine Zuber and the evocative lighting by Brian MacDevitt. The Beaumont stage has never looked so great or been used with such fluidity as here where Oï¿½Brien keeps the numerous scenes flowing freely and coherently.
The large cast is full interesting actors but the star of Part 1 is an almost unrecognizable Billy Crudup playing the defiantly working class critic Belinsky, making his way in a world of social though not intellectual betters. Also memorable are the sincere Jennifer Ehle and the sparky Martha Plimpton as the Bakunin sisters Liubov and Varenka respectively. Making rather brief appearances here are the estimable Brian F. Oï¿½Byrne as Herzen and Josh Hamilton as Ogarev who play larger parts in Parts 2 and 3 of the epic. So much to look forward to.
Donï¿½t miss it.
Review by Barbara Mehlman
'This is a combined review of Parts 1 & 2'
Tom Stoppard is no madman, though one has to wonder about a brilliant playwright's good sense when he deliberately writes a trilogy about Russia, writers and revolution that spans 30 years, and runs approximately eight hours.
But 'Coast of Utopia,' which does indeed take a third of a day to perform, is utterly absorbing and demands neither pre-requisites nor prior knowledge, contrary to the opinion of one reviewer in New York's self-proclaimed Newspaper of Record.
Stoppard was so distressed that said reviewer had come up with a list of pre-theater reading that he wrote in a Letter to the Editor:
"My blood ran cold when I saw your informed and kindly meant roundup of sources for my trilogy, 'The Coast of Utopia.' The headline on the list of titles, 'Required Pre-theater Reading,' should be interpreted as 'Recommended Post-Theater Reading.' What kind of madman would write a play that requires the audience to read a dozen books in advance? Come as you are; you'll be fine." (New York Times, Nov. 28, 2006)
And you will, although you will need to pay attention. 'Utopia' is so full of ideas, debatable issues, and literary and art references -- both visual and verbal -- that you'll be rapidly combing through your storehouse of knowledge to recall the information you collected so long ago to relate it to what your hearing.
After a stunning opening of a roiling sea that miraculously gets sucked away into the bowels of the theater, we see, though barely, the ghostlike images of oppressed Russian serfs standing behind a scrim where they remain for the entire production as the aging Bakunin and his large family have dinner.
An exuberant Michael Bakunin, the young son, has just returned from France with talk of revolution, political upheaval, and the infuriating reality that there's nothing worthwhile to read in Russia except Pushkin. In France, he remarks, they educate women and have great writers. "We are poor, behind-the-times Russia," he laments.
Michael discusses this further with his friend Belinsky, a magazine publisher, editor and critic who understands that in a repressive society, such as czarist Russia, writers matter. "We have no literature!" Our country is backward, he says, a mystery to the world, and what he wants is for people to think of great writers when they think of Russia.
What an interesting way to define a country. Say Russia and we think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. France? Sartre, Camus, Rousseau. England? Shakespeare, of course, as well as Wilde and Shaw and many more. America? Mark Twain, Hemingway -- John Grisham and Danielle Steele. (Shiver and shudder.)
Lest you think, though, that you're in for a long siege of unrelieved intellectual banter, you'll be pleased to know that Stoppard hasn't lost sight of his job of providing entertainment at the same time that he presents high-minded themes.
In a recent talk with a group of Drama Desk members, Stoppard pointed out that, "no matter the subject matter of a play, it's always about how people behave towards each other, how they feel about each other." And this is borne out in the first two plays as everyone's personal lives are embroidered onto the complex fabric of ideas that permeate the entire production.
We witness the effects of Belinsky's tuberculosis, the death of Alexander Herzen's young son, the affair of his wife with the German poet Herwegh, and the forced idleness of all, exiled to France with nothing to do after the new Czar comes to power. Yet, the curious thing is that knowing all this, you really don't care. Or at least, I didn't.
Mostly, I was fascinated by al the ideas, the poetry of Stoppard's writing, and the elegance of the staging. The huge stage is devoid of walls to define place. Instead, furniture and props are carried on and off, arranged according to Stoppard's and director Jack O'Brien's visions. The actors in an outdoor scene are placed -- and dressed -- to recreate Manet's 'Dejeuner sur l'Herbe'; a scene of revolutionary violence recreates Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People."
The cast -- Ethan Hawke, Brian F. O'Byrne, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving, and Billy Crudup -- are all brilliant, and give life and vitality to a script that could easily get mired down in ideological mud.
I've not yet seen Part 3 but despite my detachment from the characters, I'm eager to see the last installment.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½The world turns quickly in Lincoln Center Theaterï¿½s exhilarating production." & 'Voyage' pulses with the dizzying, spring-green arrogance and anxiety of a new generation moving as fast as it can as it tries to forge a future that erases the past." & "When the house lights came up at the end of 'Voyage,' I felt as if a thick novel in which I had totally lost myself had been snatched from my hands. Bring on the next chapter, please. I canï¿½t wait to watch these young idealists grow up."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Every voyage requires packing. Tom Stoppard's 'Voyage' is certainly packed - with characters, big ideas, stunning visuals and, alas, vast stretches that can be tedious and emotionally frigid." & "Like any Stoppard play, "Voyage" is brainy and complex. There's talk of art, philosophy, politics, love and morality. Not all of it is scintillating. Nor do we come to care about the characters, even as they die or are exiled. That's a problem. 'Voyage' ultimately feels less like a cohesive story than a series of snapshots. But the snapshots are impressive. The production is a triumph for designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting). Together they've created indelible images - none more powerful than an opening tableau of downtrodden serfs who haunt the almost three-hour story. But the play never lives up to the power that initial image promises."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: "But forget what you may have heard about the plays: There is no required reading list, only a willingness to accept art as wondrously disordered as life. Stoppard has hit upon an enthralling, little-known story and deftly welded it into a soap opera for the thinking classes."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "No easy story to follow but the passionate acting and thrilling stagecraft of director Jack O'Brien's production provide unforgettable theater." & "The next play, subtitled "Shipwreck," resumes the saga two years later. Can't wait to see what happens next."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "One third into "The Coast of Utopia" and we are hooked. 'Voyage,' the first part of Tom Stoppard's absurdly audacious eight-and-a-quarter hour trilogy, finally opened last night and we cannot wait to get back to the Lincoln Center Theater in late December to find out what happens next to ... well, to the history of progressive thought in 19th century Russia. To be more precise, we can't wait to reconnect with the people we have met and, especially, to see what theatrical wizardry awaits in Jack O'Brien's emotionally and visually amazing direction of Stoppard's prodigiously unwieldy monster of a play."
ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "Stoppard explains his sprawling subject rather clearly. But the clarity comes at a price. Unlike many of his other plays, in which math or physics or history is used to highlight something else, "Voyage" is about its ideas, about the abstract notions that fueled men's feelings. Stoppard presents them directly and repetitively, with surprisingly little theatricality or dramatic momentum. The evening has wit, but it's also static and only mildly involving."
PETER MARKS of THE WASHINGTON POST: "The more we are exposed on this particular evening to Stoppard's teeming portrait of 19th-century intellectual fervor, the less able we are to forge a compelling bond with many of the figures who populate it." & "The highly capable O'Brien keeps the proceedings crisp, and freshest of all is the ravishing look of the piece. At the back of the stage behind a scrim, a multitude of mannequins cloaked in tattered shrouds maintain a haunting vigil; they're the faceless serfs -- "souls" in "Utopia" parlance -- whose plight gives the play its political conscience. The set designers, Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, in concert with the lighting and costume designers Brian MacDevitt and Catherine Zuber, come up with other eye-catching marvels, as in a dazzling collection of Moscow skaters gliding under an ice sculpture of the Kremlin." & "Stoppard has said he hopes each part of "The Coast of Utopia," which debuted in London in 2002, works as a separate, self-contained play. That doesn't really happen with "Voyage," which, with its untied ends, has a to-be-continued quality. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next, though not breathlessly."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "The play is the opening salvo of Tom Stoppard's 'The Coast of Utopia,' a nine-hour trilogy that is epic in its sweep, yet, judging from this first episode, surprisingly personal, intimate even, in the emotions that flow through this passionate piece of theater." & "If Stoppard's language is dense (at least for the men), the production design ï¿½ sets, Bob Crowley and Scott Pask; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Brian MacDevitt ï¿½ is buoyant and staggeringly beautiful."
FRANK SCHECK of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER " 'Voyage,' is, as with so many of Stoppard's works, alternately fascinating and tedious, poetic and discursive, informative and frustrating. It offers many rewards for those with enough patience to endure its Chekhovian longueurs, but it is hard not to wish that the playwright had demonstrated a little restraint and perhaps reined in its sprawling focus." & "Even with its three-hour length, there's an inevitable feeling that the first part is but a setting of the scene, with its convoluted, time-shifting narrative failing to cohere in satisfying fashion. Instead, one must appreciate, as always, the beauty and wit of Stoppard's language, especially as delivered here by the excellent ensemble, and the expansive history lesson that the text provides." & "O'Brien's staging, performed on Bob Crowley and Scott Pask's simple but effective set and beautifully illuminated by Brian MacDevitt's dramatic lighting, expertly and fluidly handles the complicated action. From its startling opening tableaux featuring what seems like literally dozens of people onstage to its quietly intimate moments, it provides a vivid theatricality to match the complex intellectual ideas on display."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "There's more talk than drama spread across Stoppard's extended canvas, which certainly requires concentration. But regardless of one's interest in 19th century Russian history, the novelistic play is a spry, witty and thoroughly intriguing account of men and ideas." & "Using the full depth and imposing height of the Beaumont, the stage pictures here are breathtaking. Whether it's an elegant fancy-dress ball or skaters on a winter pond, with a glass rendering of St. Basil's Cathedral dripping icy stalactites above, the imagery is gorgeous. Catherine Zuber's richly detailed costumes and the delicate textures of Brian MacDevitt's lighting also are vital in making the play as alive visually as it is intellectually." & "O'Brien, his cast and creative team have set themselves a formidably high standard with "Voyage." If they can maintain it in "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," New York will have another theatrical epic to stand in terms of magnitude, ambition and achievement alongside such milestones as "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Angels in America."
External links to full reviews from newspapers