Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Coast of Utopia

Just back from a family vacation to...New York City. As I noted last year, I used to have a sort of irrational fear of New York City, probably due to watching too many sensational TV and movie portrayals as a youth.

But that taste last fall made me want to go back and explore a bit, and the planets aligned to make it work out this week.

The main reason to go was theater. My wife and I are both huge fans of Tom Stoppard, and will go to great lengths to see his plays. In this case, it took us to Lincoln Center, where they are currently staging The Coast of Utopia, a sequential trilogy of plays about intellectual radicalism in 19th-century Russia.

And it was great! I have to admit, I was dubious when I first heard about the concept and the viability of three plays in a row. But it really works. Mainly, of course, it's Stoppard, so it's witty and intellectually challenging. But then you add on the difficulty of staging three plays at a time in the same theater, mostly with the same cast (some playing different characters), and a large cast at that, and it's really daunting. Staging any one Stoppard play is challenging, but this is a huge undertaking.

Which explains why it's only been staged twice: initially in London, and now in New York. So it's not the sort of production that's going to go on a national tour, and we figured it might be our only chance to see it, ever.

The three parts of the trilogy, although they ostensibly stand alone, really work as three parts of one story. The individual plays are, in order, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, which might give you an idea of how things proceed. Voyage introduces the characters in their youth, exploring European philosophies as they make their way into Russia. Shipwreck follows them as they move into middle age, finding their personal and political lives on the rocks. And Salvage shows them aging, watching the baton pass to another generation of revolutionaries.

I should also mention that the New York production attracted a terrific cast. I'm always a little wary when I see actors better known for movies and television work on stage, but in this case, it worked. I was particularly impressed with the work of Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup, whose work I only knew through film, but they were very charismatic and consistent in their portrayals. Hawke's rendition of Michael Bakunin, in particular, is wonderful.

And we ended up having a terrific time in New York. But more about that later.

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