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Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Coast of Utopia, Parts I and II"
Lincoln Center, Manhattan

Since Jews have managed to produce geniuses in many fields, it is no surprise that they would make their mark in theater as well. If any current Jewish writer can qualify for this category, it would be Tom Stoppard. Arguably England’s most eminent contemporary playwright, Stoppard continues to assemble a body of work that grows in scope and depth.

His own background may have contributed to his global outlook and his concern for human rights. Born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, Stoppard and his family would escape the Nazis, fleeing to Singapore, India and eventually arrive in England. After his father was killed, his mother married a British army major named Kenneth Stoppard, giving the boy his English surname.

Though Stoppard’s formal schooling ended at age seventeen when he turned to journalism, his intellectual growth would continue. Perhaps he was saved by avoiding formal education, judging by the originality and brilliance of his work. The plays are chock-full of erudite references, verbal wit and linguistic complexity.

And now Stoppard comes to Lincoln Center in New York with his latest offering, a trilogy called “The Coast of Utopia.” This ambitious nine-hour project is playing through May in repertory at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, under the visionary direction of Jack O’Brien. The three parts, in order, are “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage.” The first two are already on the boards, with “Salvage” scheduled to open in February.

Stoppard has taken on early nineteenth century Russia, a time of intellectual foment. Writers, publishers, critics, philosophers come together at that time to stir the pot, setting the stage for the tumultuous century to follow. Among the historic characters who march across his stage are Karl Marx, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Herzen, Michael Bakunin, Vissarion Belinsky.

O’Brien has assembled a formidable team of performers and designers to create this heady mix. From the first play on, the set alone is worth the price of admission. The set of “Voyage” (courtesy of set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask) equals that of any Broadway stage--but less gaudy, more elegant. This time the chandelier is ethereal, waif-like, suggesting the domes of Moscow. And masses of people are huddled against the background of the vast Russian plain. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and Mark Bennett’s sound and music also enhance that distant world.

In “Part One--Voyage,” Stoppard focuses on the Bakunin family, from 1833 to 1844. Son Michael is caught up in reform, change and new Western ideas. Like most of his colleagues, he is from a wealthy aristocratic family—in revolt from his parents. “How the world must have been changing while I was holding it still,” his father finally comments. The Bakunins, in fact, have an estate of “500 souls.” (Reform and change, at that point, would have had to come from the educated scions of upper-class families. The disenfranchised serfs were too busy surviving to enjoy the niceties of theoretical discussion.)

The Bakunins, with their four daughters, are preoccupied with estate matters, marriage goals and social obligations, while Michael moves in a whirl of new ideas, publishing plans, and intellectual discourse. The nature of personal liberty, the relation of individuals to the State are all grist for the mill, drawn from the western philosophies—German Ideaism, French Romanticism.

Part II, appropriately named “Shipwreck,” focuses on the Herzen family, and takes place in western Europe, mostly France. The Herzens, and their colleagues, have fled to France, to be part of the French revolution of 1848. This, as the Herzens’ lives, proves to be disastrous, with the would-be revolutionaries in disarray.

“Shipwreck” is somewhat slow getting off the ground, but builds steadily in power, until one is totally caught up in this absorbing period in history, as the Herzens are caught in a whirlpool of trials and tragedy.

Stoppard has long been interested in the element of time, and of how one era affects subsequent eras, so evident in this trilogy. At the same time he has an uncanny ability to create intriguing characters (part real--part fiction) against the historic backdrop. Thus, in “Voyage,” Bukanin, Belinsky, Herzen and others come to life, even as they spell out the intellectual awakening of 19th century Russia.

A stellar cast includes Amy Irving, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Brian O’Byrne, Martha Plimpton, Ethan Hawke. But it is Billy Crudup as the all-too-human Belinsky, riddled with strong commitments and self-doubts, who gives the performance of a lifetime. Amy Irving, as an estranged wife, gives an electric jolt to “Shipwreck,” while Brian O’Byrne and Jennifer Ehle are brilliant as the Herzens. In all, “Voyage” and “Shipwreck,” the opening salvos for “The Coast of Utopia,” have taken over Lincoln Center, with promise of wonders to come.

-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 8, 2007

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