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Unstoppable Stoppard

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The three segments of the stunningly prolific British dramatist’s theatrical troika are titled, respectively, “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage,” with the first-named segment having opened at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, to be followed in time by the middle and closing portions of the triptych.
“Shipwreck” will play its first preview performance on Dec. 6, with “Salvage” joining the first two parts on Jan. 30.
“The Coast of Utopia” will play at Lincoln Center through March 10, with an extension almost certain and with, according to most reports, a few days on which all three parts of the trilogy will be performed in marathon sessions lasting nearly nine hours, meal breaks not included.
Difficult as it is to assess a venture of this enormity on the basis of its starting segment, it seems safe to say that, if “Voyage” is any indication, the author of, among myriad other works including “Arcadia” and “The Real Thing” has outdone himself and come up with a saga worthy of massive attention.
“Voyage” itself is composed of two parts, each of them more or less capable of standing alone and making sense without undue reference to the chapter that follows or precedes it.
The first half of “Voyage” is set at Premukhino, the lush country estate of aristocratic Alexander Bakunin (Richard Easton in top form), who lives there in relative comfort with his wife, Varvara (Amy Irving), the couple’s four daughters, and, when he’s not off somewhere, trying to find his place in life, their somewhat flighty son, Michael (played with wit and energy by a relentlessly fascinating Ethan Hawke).
The segment’s action begins in the summer of 1833, and ends in the autumn of 1841, with the Bakunins living a routinely privileged life 150 miles northwest of Moscow, the city where Act Two takes place, from March 1834, to autumn, 1841, therefore running parallel to the events of the initial portion of the trilogy’s opening third.
The back story of “Voyage” hinges upon the history of the Decembrists, a group made up largely of soldiers, both officers and conscripts, many of whom had been serfs, who, influenced by the French Revolution, began to dream of a time when something similar might be achieved in Russia.
When Tsar Alexander I died in December 1825, a group of young noblemen began advocating for change and political reform.
The Decembrists were dead or banished by the time Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” begins, but their ideas and goals have shaped and influenced the six young friends who stand at the heart of the trilogy.
Stoppard said, in a recent radio interview, that “Utopia is no place, a place that cannot exist.” This is a lesson which is idealistic young heroes will learn, much to their sorrow, in “Shipwreck,” the play which follows “Voyage.”
The core character of “The Coast of Utopia,” Stoppard admits, is Alexander Herzen, played by Brian F. O’Byrne, who arrives in the latter scenes of Act Two of “Voyage” and comes into dominant focus in the final two parts of the trilogy.
The overall action of “The Coast of Utopia” extends over some 40 years and, to judge from the portion that is available now, Stoppard’s achievement will amount to a sweeping overview of a society in epochal change and, by extension, a world passing through a crucial phase to which there is no returning.
Among the joys of what is almost certainly Stoppard’s most challenging and complicated adventure as a writer is the pure pleasure he appears to have found in humanizing the men and women who populate “The Coast of Utopia,” regardless of whether the individual in question is a major player or merely a fleeting visitor to the scene.
“Voyage” moves like the wind, and, for serious theatergoers willing to immerse themselves in the rich, complicated universe that Stoppard has created, the experience will prove extraordinary. For audiences willing and able to submerge themselves completely in this amazing playwright’s latest triumph, the rewards will be almost beyond counting.
Among the heroes of this glorious Lincoln Center production are designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, and, most impressive of all, director Jack O’Brien who is at or near the top of the small heap of truly outstanding American stage artists.
Crowley, one of the sons of a now-deceased Limerick City firefighter, is arguably the theater’s finest, most versatile designer. With “The Coast of Utopia,” if “Voyage” is any indication, he has outdone himself, with unspecified help from Pask.
“Shipwreck” and “Salvage,” Parts Two and Three, respectively, of the massive trilogy which is “The Coast of Utopia,” will have to disappointing indeed to dim the luster of the experience indicated by Part One, “Voyage.”

Voyage, Part 1 of The Coast of Utopia
Written by: Tom Stoppard; Directed by: Jack O’Brien; Starring: Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Josh Hamilton, David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Br

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