A monstrous wave of theater will engulf Lincoln Center next month and Tom Stoppard, the protean dramatist of unparalleled wit and imagination, is at the center of the squall. His three play cycle, “The Coast of Utopia”, will have its U.S. premiere in October and seems like an ideal autumn theater overload.
The opus spans thirty years of Russian life in the mid-19th century as revolution swept Europe and a group of intellectuals, anarchists and poets led a failed movement to topple the Tsar. (Though they did, ultimately, have some influence on the Tsar’s emancipation of the serfs.)
Stoppard insists that though the plays are sequential, each is self contained and they can be viewed out of order, “like Star Wars”. The trilogy is directed by Jack O’Brien, who helmed the Broadway production of “Hairspray”, “The Full Monty” and Stoppard’s last Lincoln Center foray, “The Invention of Love”.
This massive production will provide employment for 44 actors playing 70 roles (and requires over 169 costumes). The standout of the cast is arguably Josh Hamilton, who delivered a riveting performance in last year’s “Hurlyburly”. (Baumbach fans will also know him from “Kicking and Screaming”.) Other boldface cast members include Martha Plimpton (“The Goonies”), Ethan Hawke (“The Velocity of Gary”) and Billy (“Almost Famous”) Crudup.
The first third of the trilogy, “Voyage”, is centered on famed writer (and future anarchist) Michael Bakunin and his family circle. But Stoppard says his initial inspiration was literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, the first (self-proclaimed) Russian socialist. These two men become the focus of the latter plays, “Shipwreck” and “Salvage”, though they appear in all three.
If you’re not familiar with these historical figures, don’t feel bad; Stoppard admits in an article for the Guardian that he had not even heard of Belinsky or Herzen before he began researching the plays. We’re taking “The Coast of Utopia” as motivation to brush up on 19th century European history and maybe even lug around a heavy Russian novel this winter (we might even read some of it, who knows?)
In a fascinating interview on Lincoln Center’s website, O’Brien divulges that when the first part of the cycle premiered in London in 2002, Stoppard had just started the third play. Part of his impetus to re-mount the trilogy was that Stoppard “felt the time had come to figure out just what in fact he had created.”
O’Brien cautions audiences against expecting a tidy narrative wrap up at the trilogy’s end, which he feels is one of Stoppard’s great virtues: “[Stoppard] says: Let me look at the fact that these shoelaces never get tied up again. And how like my life this is. You may not get what's going on every second -- that's okay. You may think: Here comes this character again -- I know where I am. How exciting! Then, oops -- gone again! How is that any different from the last five years of your life? On a larger level, you should be looking at something very like a parallel universe of what it feels to be alive in the 19th century at a time of crisis and peril, which, in terms of dissatisfaction and political irritation, is not so very different from our time.”
On three Saturdays starting in February, those with a monomaniacal bent can commit to watching the entire three part trilogy performed in a single day (with breaks for power bars, vodka-infused Gatorade and Adderall). This kind of full-body-and-mind immersion can be deliriously rewarding; one of our favorite experiences of winter ’05 was GATZ, Elevator Repair Service’s six hour full-text adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
Tickets for the three marathon performances are limited, so die-hard theatergoers are advised to purchase now. Read the backstage blog starting in October.