Sailing Away: The Coast of Utopia

by clarencecarter
March 27, 2007 11:09 AM
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We’re not theatre critics here at Reverse Shot, so I hope any who happen to cruise by here will forgive a brief indulgence: I spent my Saturday with a few Reverse Shot pals, Tom Stoppard, and the cast of his The Coast of Utopia trilogy and it was a bit of a monster.

This is not to say that his nautically inflected trilogy (Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage) about the exploits of the erstwhile crew of Russian thinkers and would-be revolutionaries circling around the lesser-known figure of Alexander Herzon doesn’t falter or lag across is nearly nine hours of length. This is largely to be expected. But even when the humor flattens out, the expository dialogue grows unwieldy, and historical accuracy jumps the shark, the entire project coasts (pun intended) on a forceful perspective and historical sweep that’s all too rare these days in any art form. I can’t imagine not seeing Utopia in a single afternoon—the bits that rhyme across plays would most likely be forgotten, and more importantly, the salvage act Stoppard performs on his group would be far less apparent, and less affecting because of it.

The Coast of Utopia captures that moment in the mid 1800s when a seismic societal change seemed possible, even likely to many, and folks like Herzon, Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx and others actively worked to foment upheaval. Of course, 1848 didn’t work out the way any of these thinkers had planned, and Stoppard (no fan of Marx) spends much of the time in his first two plays poking at the hypocrisies of the intellectual class waging hypothetical battles on behalf of the proletariat. But, it’s in his third act, where dreams have long been shattered, and hope mostly lost, that he tosses Herzon a victory in the form of the Russian emancipation of the serfs. In this, the playwright allows his characters a measure of redemption and fully recasts their struggles in the first two plays—maybe foolish and misguided, but often well-meaning, these folks loved an idea of what their Russia could be and finally, unexpectedly helped bring about some kind of change. It’s a message to take to heart.

Oh, and there are lots of famous people in it: an astonishing Billy Crudup, a furiously mugging Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Martha Plimpton. See the marathon if you can…the performers were visibly excited to have accomplished nine hours of theatre, as was the audience. This is probably old news by now, but it’s running for a few more months, so any of you out there who are on the fence should give it a shot.

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