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The Coast of Utopia: A Trilogy
Notes About This Event of the Season| Voyage | Shipwreck | Salvage
We Russians, belonging neither to East nor West, have never advanced with other people in the march of enlightenment. The Renaissance passed us by while we remained squatting in our hovels.
— From The Coast of Utopia used to introduce Lincoln Center dramaturg Anne Cattaneo's introductory notes to the play.
The fact that the downside is increasingly present in Stoppard's vision suggests that he is more willing than he has been to confront the historical landscape of loss and uprootedness. The Coast of Utopia takes in the plight of exile —" the flotsam of refugees forever going over the past," as Alexander Herzen, the trilogy's presiding presence describes them — with a sharp but sympathetic eye. If you're not too busy being amused by Stoppard's epigrammatic deftness throughout Utopia, his uncanny ability to bring together discordant parts into a resoundingly satisfying whole, you might notice that what links everything and everyone is a feeling of untold loss and undwelled-on heartache, infusing all the bright chatter and energetic stomping in and out of romance and revolution with an atmosphere of Chekhovian twilight, a quality of withheld sadness.
—from "Playing With Ideas," an interview with Tom Stoppard by Daphne Merkin, New York Times Magazine, November 26, 2006
When this epic trilogy played in London, audiences and critics had the opportunity to see all three parts in an all-day marathon, and this is how our London critic Lizzie Loveridge experienced Tom Stoppard's monumental undertaking. The Lincoln Center production has spread this event out over six months (extended to eight) with marathon performances hard to come by and not available to the press. Thus, my review of the trilogy will be posted on this one page but one play at a time. Each review will include full cast information. Production notes that apply to the whole trilogy will follow Salvage, the last play to be reviewed.
To read our London critic's review Go Here
For CurtainUp's backgrounder on Tom Stoppard's career, links to other reviews, quotations, etc.
Notes & Updates
The upside and downside of taking in the trilogy in one big bite. Several readers with tickets to an early marathon performance clocked in with their reactions. They seem in agreement that it's a hard on the backside experience illustrating the no pain/no gain principle. They liked the cumulative power of seeing all the parts in one day but felt this also underscored the playwright's self-indulgence. And those who were sorry not to be able to get marathon tickets did have the pleasure of seeing that thrilling curtain three times instead of just once when it was all over. And here's a letter from a reader who saw the three parts separately and also the marathon: "Some of my friends think I'm crazy. I saw the three parts of Coast of Utopia on three different nights, all before official openings. Through a friend I was able to snag a ticket for the Marathon and so I went to see the whole thing again. Wow! It was a whole new experience. For one thing, the actors have become even better-- even though they were understandably exhausted at the curtain call (just one for all three parts) and daunting as it is to invest a whole day in this production. That's not to say that I don't think that it would not have been more wider audience friendly if Mr. Stoppard could have brought himself to pare it down so that it could be viewed in two parts instead of having the majority of people having to re-immerse themselves after several weeks between performances. " — Marian Gibbs, Long Island.
"Utopia Is a Bore, There, I Said It." With all the accolades showered on this trilogy who would dare to make this declaration. . .and at that in big, bold headline type blazing across page 6 of the Sunday Arts & Leisure page of The New York Times. The by-line of the piece belongs to Christopher Isherwood, the second in command of the paper's critical staff. Since the paper's critics rarely disagree with each other in public, Isherwood edges into his own less than ecstatic take on Mr. Stoppard's epic, he rather snidely uses a little old lady with a walker who he overheard uttering this "heresy." While I can't say I agree with the lady or with Isherwood, it is refreshing to see this diversity of opinions in the paper of record, to note that when faced with loyally echoing Ben Brantley or making those viewers holding a minority opinion feel okay rather than apoletic about it.
The Promotional Wheels for the Trilogy Spin on, With Not One but Two Utopia-related features in the 1/28/07 NYTimes Styles section. Page four ("A Night Out With") followed Brian F. O'Byrne, a.k.a. Alexander Herzen, spending his day off using a Christmas gift certificate to take a helicopter ride with his friend and Utopia colleague, Jason Butler Harner, followed by a meal at Angus McIndoe (would you call this a double promo—one for the show and one for the famous theater eaterie?) where Byrne was not quite able to relax because he felt that he should be home memorizing his lines — with the worrying thought that Tom Stoppard might be adding new lines at this very moment. Fast forward to page nine and there was a write-up ("Broadway by the Glass" by Jonathan Miles) about Jonathan Miles the mixologist for the concessionaire for the Lincoln Center Theater who has had to come up for not one but three drinks compatible with the trilogy. For enterprising home bartenders, there's an adaptation of the recipe for Voyage which looks remarkably simple: 1/12 ounces of Absolut Mandarin vodka and 1/2 ounce each of German apple Schnapps, Little blank Squeeze of of fresh lime juice and freshly squeezed orange juice. Plus a splash of ginger ale.
Opening of Part Three of the Trilogy Delayed. The opening for Salvage has been moved from February 15th to the 18th. Performances are still set to begin January 30th.
What famous painting is incorporated into Shipwreck's dramatic dual scene depicting the complicated relationship between Alexander and Natalie Herzen and the poet George Herwegh and his wife Emma? There's an unidentified painting on the back of the Fall/Winter Lincoln Center Theater Review about The Coast of Utopia. That painting is Manet's famous tableau title "Dejeuners sur l'herbe." and it's brilliantly used to overlap two scenes painting (literally) a picture of the complicated relationships in the Herzen household. Jennifer Ehle as Natalie Herzen recreates the pose of the focal figure in the painting that actually was not created until forty years later.
It's not cheap to seeThe Coast of Utopia — but you can combine seeing it with a terrific FREE show at the Library next door. Stars and Treasures: 75 Years of Collecting Theatre is a treaure trove of fascinating theatrical memorabilia pertaining theater everywhere and of every kind —.paintings, drawings, scripts, photographs, set models, costumes, posters, videos, and ephemera dating from the early 18th century to the present day, and represent drama, musical theatre, and such popular entertainment as the circus, magic, and vaudeville. The exhibit runs through May 5th and the hours are noon-6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; noon-8 p.m. Thursdays.
About Stoppard's Russians' Contributions to the Lexicon. In Voyage, Billy Crudup, as the critic Vissarion Belinksy had a long rant about how Russian can't claim a place in literature "when its head is stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign." Early on in Shipwreck, Nicholas Ketscher, a doctor and one of Herzen's friends, proudly announces that a Russian word has finally found its way into the European lexicon. Herzen at first pooh poohs this by declaring that he's already in the German dictionary by virtue of the surname given him as the love child of his German mother and Russion father (herz being German for love). But Ketscher says what he's talking about is a new world altogher and that word is intelligentsia The intelligentsia to describe the high-minded social thinkers represented by the friends whose stories Coast of Utopia focuses on. One member of this intelligentsia, Ivan Turgenev, is often credited with coining the term nihilist in his novel Fathers and Sons. While he did not actually coin the word, his use of it for the character Bazarov did popularize the term. When Fathers and Sons was published more than a dozen years after the end of Shipwreck, Turgenev dedicated it to his chief mentor and encourager, Belinsky. As for the nihilist Bazarov, he would have laughed all Stoppard's Pushkin admirers off the stage. At one point in the novel he tell his friend and host Arkady how out of step with the times his father is, backing up his point with "The day before yesterday I saw him reading Pushkin. Please explain to him how utterly useless that is. After all he's not a boy, it's high time he got rid of such rubbish. And what an idea to be romantic in our times!"
Will There be Another Voyage for Stoppard's Triptych?. According to the Dec.25-Jan1 edition of The New Yorker ("Moscow Notecard" by Masha Lipman), Mr. Stoppard's epic is headed for the country where the pioneering intellectuals like Herzen and Bellinsky have had streets named after them and are taught in school. Yet the
Utopia script initially met with some resistance since as he put it the Russians were apparently "sick of having Herzen and Belinsky shoved down their throats in high school." Perhaps, that's why the Russians are mounting the play at "a meandering Chekhovian pace" that the playwright found rather puzzling during a recent visit there. While the Russians aren't panting to reconnect with these emigrants and thinkers they are apparently fond enough of Stoppard and his work to welcome them back on Russian soil.
Ethan Hawke's Double Life. Ethan Hawke, who hops from revolution to revolution in Coast of Utopia, has also found time in his busy life as a stage and screen actor to write two novels. No wonder he was drawn at one time to living in the Chelsea Hotel, which has been home to countless writers and artists including Arthur Miller. It also served as a shooting site for the filming of his second novel, The Hottest State.
The Epic Is Extended. In response to the enormous rush to buy tickets, the trilogy has been extended through May 13th, 2007 -- the 21 additional performances will include six opportunities to see all three shows on a marathon Saturdays (March 24, March 31, April 7, April 21, April 28 and May 5). It must have taken a lot of maneuvering to keep that huge cast on board. Rumors are rife about extensions through June to take advantage of anticipated Tony Awards but at this point they are just that, rumors.
The Marathon Schedule: Part 1 starts 11am ends about 1:40 pm; Part 2 starts 3:30pm ends 6:00; Part 3 Starts 8pm should end around 10:30. What about eating and relaxing in between? LC management plans to beef up its concession (which is always pricey and likely to be more so) and the crowds are likely to be mind-boggling. Nearby restaurants are also likely to be crowded and will need to gear up to get people in and out in a timely fashion. Brownbagging it might be the best option, but with the lobby not overwhelmed with seating, eating outdoors is dependent on the weather. If the weather's nice, a walk to prevent cramps from all that sitting and something you can eat while walking might just be the best bet. Since these all-in-one tickets are hard to come by, the ideal way to see the shows might be to try for a Wed or Saturday matinee and evening, and then get the third part on another day.
A Conversation With Stoppard. If you'd like to have dinner with playwright Tom Stoppard, you might want to sign up for a panel hosted by the The Drama Desk on Monday, January 8 at Tony's Di Napoli (147 West 43rd Street). It's not a tête-a-tête but these panels preceded by a buffet dinner (starting at 5pm) are friendly and informal. Moderating the conversation with Sir Tom will be Drama Desk's genial president William Wolf and author Margaret Croyden. Tickets are $25 for Drama Desk members and $45 for non-members. Reservations emailed to email@example.com are a must.
A postscript on the above event: Like the trilogy itself, the Drama Desk event was a sellout, so much so that the buffet dinner had to be changed to a sit-down arrangement to accommodate extra tables. The food was delicious, and so was Sir Tom. Soft spoken and not the least bit the intimidating intellectual some people expected, Stoppard answered questions about how his plays evolve — well, he started to do so but tended to ramble off in various directions with self-deprecating charm. On the subject of all the books that influenced Utopia and prompted a NYTimes article with a recommended reading list, he said "I read very widely, more than deeply" —something that tends to happen to people seeing the plays-- many of whom, like me have spent the wait between the first two parts and the still to come third wandering to their book shelves to re-read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Gogol's The Overcoat (which in turn prompted me to read a wonderful new novel, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, a story that has nothing to do with Russia but in which Gogol's famous story figures importantly.) On the changes in Utopia's text, cast and presentation since the initial London production, Stoppard said "I never consider a play frozen. If I'm around (as he has been in New York) I fool around with it." Some of the key changes in the text have been to move away from the actual quotes from some of his source material because "quotes don't always sit comfortably in dialogue." The playwright is fully aware of the importance of how his play is supported by his collaborators —director O'Brien and the designers and actors. (".") While some of the Drama Desk members had to rush off to make evening curtains, many guests, including Stoppard, stayed for dessert.
Homework Anyone? And in case the pre-opening articles in The New York Times made you wonder if you needed to do some heavy background reading to understand and enjoy the brilliant Mr. Stoppard's historic drama and sort out the many characters, here's a quick take on this subject from my colleague Simon Saltzman after he saw Voyage:
Do you need to Read Up to Keep Up With Stoppard's Intellectual Epic about the Russian Intelligentsia?
Any play by Stoppard tends to be a daunting and challenging experience, if also entertaining. Knowing up to this point that his impressive and still growing canon can also be relied upon to be reasonably interesting (The Real Thing) sometimes dazzling (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and even formidable (The Invention of Love), I would normally approach a monumental work as The Coast of Utopia with just a little fear and trepidation that I have not been schooled or acquainted enough with its subjects and themes.
You don't have to be a Rhodes scholar to assume that Stoppard's lengthy and complex consideration of the intelligentsia in early 19th century Russia was not going to be easy sailing — those in particular who instigated the first tremors of new and radical political/philosophical thought. Nevertheless, I felt that surely it was up to Stoppard, and not my lack of research or resistance to bone up in order for his play(s) to be dramatic, accessible and enjoyable. Needless to say that when on Friday morning April 24, I opened the Weekend Arts section of the New York Times to see an article written by William Grimes in which he makes mention of three "remarkable books" that will "shed a crystalline light on the turbulent world that Mr. Stoppard dramatizes." left me feeling "Oh, dear. I'm lost."
Those fine books — Russian Thinkers by Isiah Berlin, The Romantic Exiles by E.H. Carr and My Past and Thoughts by Aleksandr Herzen — were recommended as required reading for a fuller understanding of Stoppard's play and the real-life characters who inhabit it. Good luck to those of you who have the time and inclination. But now having seen the first play, may I respectfully suggest that you don't have to do anything but surrender to the often humorous discourse, the emotional disarray and the romantic escapades of the Bakunin family and that bunch of wonderfully eccentric and brilliant upstarts (no name-dropping here) in their oeuvre as they face changing times. Because this is not a review, I won't mention the excellent acting, or the stunning production but I can't wait for Part II. —Simon Saltzman
Postscript: And if you don't think Simon Sez it right, here's Mr. Stoppard himself protesting that well-intentioned but daunting reading list from Mr. Grimes in a November 28th letter to the Times: My blood ran cold when Isaw your informed and kindly meant roundup of sources for my trilogy. . .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 ——.to which I add a hearty Amen and I'll take Simon and Tom Stopard's advice to "come as you are" when I go to the Vivian Beaumont two weeks from now. — E.Sommer
Voyage | Shipwreck | Salvage
To read our London critic's review Go Here
I'm one of those who are born for their time—Michael Bakunin, whose constantly changing philosophical passions are the despair of the Bakunin family's pragmatic embrace of life that comes from "owning 500 souls."
Look at us! —a gigantic child with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign. How can we have a literature?—Vissarion Belinsky, a want-to-be literary critic in one of Voyage's biggest mouthfuls of dialogue.
This first part of the trilogy is one of the most stylish nods to Chekhov that you're ever going to see. It features four instead of three devoted sisters. Unlike Chekhov, Stoppard doesn't keep his multitudinous cast tethered to the grand Russian countryside estate of the Bakunin family and "the 500 souls" who make their aristocratic life style possible (a common euphemism of the times for serfs, the Russian equivalent of slaves).
L to R: Martha Plimpton, Jennifer Ehle, Kellie Overbeye, Ethan Hawke (foreground)
(Photo: Paul Kolnik )
After an hour at the at the Bakunin's Premukhino home some 150 miles northwest of Moscow, the action moves back in time and to Moscow, thus replaying the events discussed during the first act, with an eventual return to the Chekhovian landscape. These journeys in time and between city and country deftly interweave the domestic dramas of one family with the big philosophical and political movements that will shake up their world and in which young men like the family's charismatic bad boy, Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), yearn to play a part.
Yes, there is a lot of talk (Stoppard plays have never been intended for those with short attention spans and minimal intellectual curiosity), but it will have you more bewitched than bothered and bewildered. So what if your family's table talk doesn't lean towards lofty ruminations on "the inner life" or the writings of Hegel and Kant. The Bakunin family, headed by the always excellent Richard Easton, may chatter about philosophical matters but their chief concern is about having the Bakunin girls settled in marriages to other aristocrats. Jane Austin's Bennet sisters would feel as at home at Premukhino as Chekhov's Prozorov sisters.
As for the assorted Russian intellectuals who are intermingled with the Bakunin family, the actors portraying them make them interesting and accessible — and quite often funny (loud chuckles from the audience regularly punctuated the performance I attended). Interestingly, while Stoppard's expansive exploration of ideas is presented in relatively bite-sized, easy to swallow dialogue, the humongous speech that falls to the passionate would-be critic Vissario Belinsky is delivered with such verve by Billy Crudup that its conclusion was met with applause as if it were a show stopping song in a musical.
With so many top drawer actors to make this an absorbing and enjoyable history lesson, everyone is likely to have their own best performance candidates and will want to see how these actors either mature or take on new roles in future installments. I, for one, can't wait to see Brian O'Byrne's Alexander Herzen emerge from his relatively minor role in this play (though the opening image of him in Voyage is a coup-de-théâtre moment and he does have several long-ish speeches); or Jennifer Ehle, Voyage's delicate Liubov Bakunin who's smitten with the gentle Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour) reborn as Natalie Herzen in Shipwreck. I should mention here that the relationship between Liubov and Varenka (Martha Plimpton), the sister who follows the father's dictum that a wife should be at least half her husband's age, is beautifully realized. As another such young bride of a mature man, there is of course the patriarch's own wife (Amy Irving), whose pragmatic marriage may have bolstered her penchant for beating the servants.
Ethan Hawke's Michael, around whom everything in Voyage swirls, pumps up the youthful charisma and ever changing enthusiasms that his sisters can't resist and his father (Richard Easton) is unable to keep in check. I suspect that we'll understand what may seem like a somewhat too overheated performance as the just right introduction for the more mature revolutionary of Shipwreck.
Ethan Hawke & Richard Easton
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Not surprisingly, in such a large cast there is some notable cameo work, my favorites being David Cromwell a seasoned essayist and David Pittu as a self-important editor who has a hard time holding on to his ideals in the censorship, banishment and imprisonment measures imposed by the Tsar after the 1825 Decembrist revolt. That revolt is the starting point for the entire epic's burgeoning search for a better world—the ever elusive Utopian society.
If I haven't said anything about the physical production, it's simply that there is so much about this ambitious enterprise to talk about. One could go on and on about director Jack O'Brien and his designers' truly gasp inducing stage pictures: The opening's stunning swirl of stormy waters that gives way to the mirrored revolving stage (a bit reminiscent of Stoppard 's Invention of Love) backed by a frozen scrim that reveals the stooped figures (partially mannequins) of the souls who are part and parcel of the Bakunins' holdings. The shift to the Russian cityscapes brings a picture postcard skating scene overhung by an ice chandelier representing the spire of St. Basil's Cathedral and a ballroom scene that shows off Catherine Zuber's costumes at their lushest.
Does Voyage really stand on its own? Almost, but not quite. It's one thing to have an open-ended somewhat vague finale, but too much of what's to come is telescoped to stop here. Like one of the big Masterpiece Theater productions of times past, Voyage is a setup, an introduction that begs an investment in time (not to mention three sets of tickets) to make three trips to Lincoln Center (or spend an entire day , if you were able to nab a ticket for an all in one marathon performance). Still, even if you can manage only one third of this trilogy, it's exhilarating to see forty-four actors on stage. At a time when the economics of the theater have led to the proliferation of solo shows and casts calling for more than half a dozen actors are considered a luxury, having all those thespians step forward to take their well-deserved curtain calls, is a near miracle with Lincoln Center the Santa Claus to make it all possible.
Cast: Billy Crudup (Vissarion Belinsky), Richard Easton (Alexander Bakunin), Jennifer Ehle (Liubov Bakunin), Josh Hamilton (Nicholas Ogarev), David Harbour (Nicholas Stankevich), Jason Butler Harner (van Turgenev), Ethan Hawke (Michael Bakunin), Amy Irving (Varvara Bakunin), BrÍan F. O'Byrne (Alexander Herzen), Martha Plimpton (Varenka Bakunin).
Bianca Amato (Miss Chamberlain), Mia Barron (Natalie Beyer), Larry Bull (Company), Denis Butkus (Company), Michael Carlsen (Company), Amanda Leigh Cobb (Company), Anthony Cochrane (Dyakov), Patricia Conolly (Mrs. Beyer), David Cromwell (Peter Chaadaev), Adam Dannheisser (Pushkin / Ginger Cat),
Matt Dickson (Company), Aaron Krohn (Nicholas Sazonov), Felicity LaFortune (Company), Jennifer Lyon (Katya), David Manis (Semyon), Andrew McGinn (Baron Renne), Kellie Overbey (Tatiana Bakunin), Scott Parkinson (Company), David Pittu (Nicholas Polevoy), Annie Purcell (Alexandra Bakunin), Erika Rolfsrud (Company), Brian Sgambati (Company), Robert Stanton (Stepan Shevyrev), Baylen Thomas (Nicholas Ketscher),
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes
January 30, 2007 to May 13th; opening November 27, 2006.
Review by Elyse Sommer based on December 16th matinee performance.
See production notes for the entire trilogy after Salvage
|If we can't arrange our own happiness, it's a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.
— Alexander Herzen reflecting on his painful self-awareness, so different from when he came to Paris "as people used to come to Jerusalem or Rome" but found that "the city of the plain made one half-hearted effort to be worthy of itself and then collapsed satisfied under six feet of dung."
We discovered that history isn't impressed by intellectuals. History is more like the weather: You never know what it's going to do.
— German poet George Herwegh's lament.
Billy Crudup , Jenifer Ehle , August Gladstone, Beckett Melville and Patricia Conolly in Shipwreck.
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Voyage introduced us to a group of young idealists passionate about being part of a fairer, more forward looking social milieu than one run by the few and serviced by masses of slaves. Shipwreck finds those young thinkers in their thirties. Except for brief intervals in Russia, the setting is Paris, Nice and Saxony.
While there is one actual shipwreck, the title's broader significance becomes clear as we see their ideals and private dreams tossed about on the stormy seas of circumstance and disillusioning human behavior.
Brian O'Byrne as Alexander Herzen in Shipwreck
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Of the six friends at the center of the trilogy (Michael Bakunin, emigre/activist; Alexander Herzen, radical writer; George Herwegh and Nicholas Ogarev, poets and radicals; Vissarion Belinksky, literary critic; Ivan Turgenev, writer), it's Alexander Herzen who is the linchpin figure in this installment. But with the personal more tightly interwoven with the political and philosophical, Shipwreck is more than Herzen and his male circle's story. The women, while very much present in Voyage, are now as fully rounded and passionately opinionated as the men. This is especially true for the role played by Jennifer Ehle. The gentle, doomed Bakunin sister of Part One, is now Natalie Herzen. She's as intelligent as she is beautiful, though her excessive romantic George Sand inspired idealism rocks the Herzen marital boat. It should not surprise anyone that the forward thinking Herzen is unable to deal with a liaison between his wife and one of his closest friends (one of O'Byrne's most powerful scenes).
With a number of other Voyage characters not written into Shipwreck, Ehle is just one actor playing different roles. All the memorizing and role mastery required for these alternately performed plays has had no adverse effect on the performance quality.
Brian O'Byrne plays Alexander Herzen on a much larger scale than previously. He reprises his gasp inducing stage entry perched in a chair that swives and descends slowly into a magical but real stormy sea. Stoppard gives him plenty of thought stirring dialogue. However, the tighter focus on the personal —most specifically Herzen's relationship with his family — gives O'Byrne a chance to develop a rich character who, even though he at times tries your attention span with his speechifying, also manages to ultimately break your heart.
Consumption which killed of Ehle's Liubov Bakunin has also done in David Stankevich the philosopher she loved played by David Harbour. But with Harbour transformed from the shy philospher to the hilariously funny, irresistible to women German poet George Herweigh, Shipwreck brings closure of sorts for the previously dead-ended romance. Bianca Amato, who we last saw as the Bakunin governess, now commands our sympathy as George's long-suffering, self-enslaved wife.
Another linked role switch has Martha Plimpton, the sister closest to Ehle's Liubov, cast as the friend with whom she has a passionate friendship. Amy Irving reappears briefly but most impressively as the free-spirited wife who left Nicholas Ogarev but pragmatically refuses to divorce him and risk the loss of his financial support. Richard Easton, the erstwhile head of the Bakunin family, makes the most of a humorous cameo as the Russian consul in Nice. David Pittu, formerly a self-important editor, is now a prancing waiter in Paris and one who sings in Nice
Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton and Billy Cruddup continue in their initial roles, showing just enough of time's passing. Hawke has toned down some of his youthful exuberance but he's still a gung-ho revolutionary and chronically broke.
The play overall is a savvy blend of discussions that touch on the immortality of the soul, literature and revolution, as well as such trivial concerns as how to get a good cup of coffee (one wonders how Herzen would judge a Starbucks latte or if Starbucks is going to add a good Russian coffee to its offerings). The generous doses of humour and the romantic subtext make all that heady talk go down without feeling like a crash course on the intellectual stirring that eventually culminated in the overthrow of Tsarist Russia.
For all of Stoppard's intellectual wordsmithing and the consistently high level of the performances, the runaway star of this monumental theatrical undertaking is the production itself. Whether Bob Crowley or Scott Pask takes the design lead, the visual imagery is so beautiful and impressive that it defies description. As the skating rink and icy cathedral chandelier were a visual standout in Voyage, so Shipwreck's show stopper is the image of a long stretch of the Place de la Concorde flanked by two huge marble horses. Director Jack O'Brien topples those horses and stages the French Revolution of 1848 with such flair that it works even without the rousing anthem in Les Miserables. O'Brien's directorial inventiveness soars even higher in several overlapping scenes, notably in one that uses a famous painting to depict Natalie Herzen's dalliance with George Herwegh while George's pregnant wife is posing for a sketch during a picnic. (See Notes About This Event of the Season at the top of this page for the name and picture of this painting).
Catherine Zuber's costumes suit the move from Moscow's suburbs to Paris and to the Nice countryside to perfection and Kenneth Posner's lighting is equally apt.
Whether Stoppard ties all these lives and ideas together in a satisfying finale, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: It will again include what's perhaps the most exciting and special part of these long evenings —that thrilling curtain call when the huge cast moves forward and backward, a row at a time. It's a spectacle unlikely to be seen again for years to come.
Cast: Billy Crudup (Vissarion Belinsky), Richard Easton (Leonty Ibayev), Jennifer Ehle (Natalie Herzen), Josh Hamilton (Nicholas Ogarev), David Harbour (George Herwegh), Jason Butler Harner (van Turgenev), Ethan Hawke (Michael Bakunin), Amy Irving (Maria Ogarev), Brian F. O'Byrne (Alexander Herzen), Martha Plimpton (Natasha Tuchkov), Bianca Amato (Emma Herwegh) Mia Barron (Company), Larry Bull (Company), Denis Butkus (Company), Michael Carlsen (Company), Amanda Leigh Cobb (Company), Anthony Cochrane (Company), Patricia Conolly (Madame Haag), David Cromwell (Jean-Marie), Adam Dannheisser (Karl Marx), Matt Dickson (Company), Aaron Krohn (Nicholas Sazonov), Felicity LaFortune (Maria Fomm), Jennifer Lyon (Company),David Manis (Policeman), Andrew McGinn (Timothy Granovsky), Kellie Overbey (Company),Scott Parkinson (Konstantin Aksakov), David Pittu (Benoit / Rocca),Annie Purcell (Company), Erika Rolfsrud (Company), Brian Sgambati (Company), Robert Stanton (Franz Otto),Eric Sheffer Stevens (Company), David Christopher Wells (Company), Baylen Thomas (Nicholas Ketscher), Tolan Aman (Shop Boy),Michael D'Addario (Company), August Gladstone (Kolya Herzen), Beckett Melville (Sasha Herzen-child).
Pianist, Dan Lipton and Guitarist, Aaron Krhohn
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes
From December 6, 2006 to May 13, 2007; opening December 21, 2006
Review by Elyse Sommer based on December 22 performance.
See production notes for the entire trilogy after Salvage
|History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. It takes wit and courage to make our way, while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lighting of personal happiness. . . Our meaning is in how we live in an imperfect world, in our time. We have no other.
— Alexander Herzen, in the concluding moments of Salvage.
A month has elapsed between my viewing Shipwreck and this concluding episode of the talk-of-the-town trilogy. As I went about my other activities, saw and wrote about various other shows around town, the excitement of those first two extravaganzas went from red hot to a more normal temperature. To keep the sense of anticipation at a brisk simmer, I made time to re-read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons but continued to steer clear of that scholarly reading list as I felt Stoppard's history-based epic had to stand on its own. My revisit with Turgenev's most famous novel paid off by making a cameo by David Harbour more amusing meaningful. Harbour, plays a doctor who becomes engaged in a conversation with Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) who soon recognizes him as the main character of his gestating masterpiece.
Josh Hamilton, Kat Peters, Brían F. O'Byrne, Martha Plimpton,
and Ethan Hawke in The Coast of Utopia Part Three: Salvage
Any trepidations that the pause between installments would make it too difficult to get as fully caught up in the lives of these Russian thinkers as I was earlier (especially so in Shipwreck) vanished as soon as the houselights dimmed. As Brian O'Byrne reprised his striking initial appearance in a chair twirling above a silky seastorm I was again as enthralled as a kid watching Mary Poppins fly. This time around, O'Byrne's entrance —the equivalent of the books and photos of a Masterpiece Theater drama, or the Gorey figures that introduce their mystery series— has the sea recede and the chair is grounded in Herzen's current London apartment with Herzen asleep and dreaming of his emigre friends dreaming.
Ignore comments you may have heard to the effect that this final episode is less dramatic and even more talky than its predecessors. Sure, it's talky, but it's also the most human of the three parts and the tendency to speechify is offset by the fact that those speeches include some of Stoppard's most memorable and eloquent dialogue.
The "What Came Before Salvage" paragraph in the program insert, as well as the play itself, are sufficient to keep anyone who missed Voyage and Shipwreck from following what's happening. However, what they will miss is the pleasure of seeing some actors seen previously reappear in new roles and those playing just one character, deepen their interpretation as we watch them age another fifteen years—in short, the sense of watching the sort of topnotch repertory company that should be, but isn't, integral to the New York theater experience.
Most notable in the roles that allow reinvention are Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton. Ehle has gone from strength to strength, first as the tubercular Bakunin sister, next as Herzen's passionate wife and now as the very proper and yet also passionate German governess. Plimpton is magnificent as Salvage's dominant and most complicated female character as the deeply caring wife of the alcoholic and sterile Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) who also acts on her feelings for Herzen.
Bryan O'Byrne as the heart and soul at the center of Salvage, pungently demonstrates the development of a single character appearing throughout. The same can be said for Josh Hamilton as his best friend Olgarev who not only goes along with the menage a trois but makes it a manage a quatre by introducing his prostitute mistress (Kellie Overbey) into this messy family situation. Ethan Hawke, whose Michael Bukanin dominated Voyage, is the same irrepressibly never-say-die revolutionary, though grayer and stouter.
These and the rest of the thrillingly large cast move the epic saga forward to 1868, at which point Herzen and his circle have seen (albeit as distant exiles) imperial Russia finally free its serfs and a new group of thinkers (the nihilists) replacing them as the men in the forefront of forging a path to that elusive perfect world or what Herzen calls a non-existing Utopia.
Herzen's efforts give substance to his dream for a really equal society take the form of his publishing a journal called The Bell play out against the background of his complicated personal life (much of it ironically funny enough to be reminiscent of a drawing room comedy) —as the widowed father enlisting the help of the orderly governess Malwida von Meysenbug (Ehle a wonderfully prim counterpart to the children's dead mother), then as the father of more children (the result of his relationship with his friend Olgarev's wife Natasha (Plimpton).
Obviously, with so many characters and events Salvage needs to be seen not synopsized—especially so, since it's once again elegantly staged by Jack O'Brien and his team of designer-magicians. While there are fewer gasp-inducing images, the open mirrored stage beautifully accommodates a variety of settings and the props from past lives and plays piled up at the side of the stage are a striking dual metaphor —for the flotsam of emigres gathering around Herzen and for the way the new thinkers will look upon the wisdom of men like Herzen as so much trash. Mixed in with that heap of no longer useful objects is an upright piano on which Dan Lipton, together with guitarist Aaron Krohn play Mark Bennett's mood setting score.
The speechifying tendencies do ultimately get the best of the playwright, making for a somewhat over-extended final half hour and all those stories of emigres, new thinkers and Herzen children aren't woven together without a seam showing. But none of this matters when even the curtain call, with all those actors marchking forward and backward to take their bows, makes Salvage and the whole Coast of Utopia an extraordinary experience.
Cast: Richard Easton (Stanislaw Worcell), Jennifer Ehle (Malwida von Meysenbug), Josh Hamilton (Nicholas Ogarev), David Harbour (Doctor), Jason Butler Harner (van Turgenev), Ethan Hawke (Michael Bakunin), Brian F. O'Byrne (Alexander Herzen), Martha Plimpton (Natasha Ogarev).
Bianca Amato (Mrs. Blainey), Mia Barron (Parlour Maid / Teresina)m , Larry Bull (Company), Denis Butkus (Company), Michael Carlsen (Company), Amanda Leigh Cobb (Company), Anthony Cochrane (Company), Patricia Conolly (Joanna Kinkel), David Cromwell (Zenkowicz / Arnold Ruge), Adam Dannheisser (Karl Marx), Matt Dickson (Sasha Herzen-adult), David Harbor (Doctor at Seashore-Bazarov) Aaron Krohn (Czerniecki), Felicity LaFortune (Maria Fomm), Jennifer Lyon (Company), David Manis (Gottfried Kinkel), Andrew McGinn (Nicholas Chernyshevsky), Kellie Overbey (Mary Sutherland), Scott Parkinson (Sleptsov), David Pittu (Louis Blanc / Pavel Vetoshnikov), Annie Purcell (Company), Erika Rolfsrud (Company), Brian Sgambati (Company), Robert Stanton (Ernest Jones), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Company),David Christopher Wells (Company), Baylen Thomas (Perotkin),Tolan Aman (Henry), Evan Daves (Sasha Herzen-older), Vivien Kells (Olga Herzen-child), Beckett Melville (Company), Kat Peters (Tata Herzen-child / Olga Herzen-older), Sophie Rudin (Company).
Running Time: 2 hours,45 minutes
January 30, 2007 to March 10, 2007; opening February 18, 2007 —Extended to May 13th
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide