Monday, April 09, 2007

Into the Words, Part One

"The Coast of Utopia: Voyage" at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, April 6, 2007

At last I got to Part I of Mr. Stoppard's trilogy running at Lincoln Center. After seeing Part II, "Shipwreck" first, I thought I had missed a good bit of the plot underway. Turns out, not so much.

This Chekovian tribute by Mr. Stoppard is an epic endeavor, attempting to span the philosophical awakening of Tsarist Russia from the perspective of the newly dubbed intelligentsia: students, radicals and philosophers seeking to find a place of equal footing among the more enlightened cultures of the West.

This installment focuses on the lives of the Bakunin family, controller of some 700 "souls" (meaning Russian serfs) on the family estate, Premukhino, 150 miles north of Moscow. You can check out the production website for more information on the plot and period.

Coast of Utopia

Hard at work here is Ethan Hawke, shouting, blustering and spitting his way through both acts as the indulged and spoiled only son, Michael Bakunin. After following tradition for as long as he could stand, he's left the military in search of a new philosophy (he almost sounds like Sallie Brown at times), finding a new one to follow as the wind changes, but none of them which allow his to remain a spoiled and indulged child like he wants. Needless to say, his search continues.

The always-impressive Richard Easton is Michael's doddering, yet still occasionally imperious father, Alexander. With four daughters and a son, he's well past his prime but not yet willing/no longer able to maintain family control. Amy Irving as his wife, Varvara, has a wonderful time flitting in and out, worrying over everyone and unable to impact anyone.

The daughters, Liubov (is it me, or is it really strange for a feminine Russian name to end without a vowel? Shouldn't it have been Liubova?) played by Jennifer Ehle is the Beth of these little women - beloved by her family and eager to find love, but dies before any of her engagements can be completed. Varenka (another always-impressive Martha Plimpton) is the Jo, but not quite strong-willed enough to make the right choice, only to recognize when she's made the wrong choice and then bemoan it. Tatiana (Kelley Overbey) is Meg, the pretty one, and Alexandra (Annie Purcell) is Amy, the youngest. It struck me as a little odd, however, that all four sisters seemed to be in love with their brother, all fawning over his every word and deed. Varenka is the only one to express the negative impact that has on her life.

Billy Crudup, as Vissarion Belinsky brings an earnest and awkward passion to his role. Belinsky, like Michael, is also in search of a new philosophy, but is a bit more pragmatic about it. He understands that one must manage some way to eat, in order to make the search.

Brian O'Byrne makes his first appearance in the series as Alexander Herzen, but doesn't have significant action yet, merely laying the foundation for his work in Part II, Shipwreck.

Director Jack O'Brien has shown himself a master in keeping all of this moving and engaging, despite Mr. Stoppard's challenging plot and character list.

As before, the physical production is quite elegant, from the torn scrims and projections to some really fabulous torchieres and a terrific chandelier that looks like an ice version of St. Basil's and the Kremlin in Moscow.

On reflection, as much as I enjoyed the performances in this play, I did feel a bit lost by the pace of the plot and the turnover of characters. Having now seen 2/3 of the trilogy, it feels like this work is more about literature than entertainment. I haven't decided how much effort I'll make to see part III.

(Starwatch: Neil Simon was in attendance)

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