Fear not its daunting themes; Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia: Voyage” is a grand and gratifying theatrical experience. The first part of his three-part trilogy about 19th century Russian history, its philosophers, political activists, and social critics, has been gloriously staged by Jack O’Brien and is acted by a supurb company of mostly young actors.
Here is a play, although just short of three hours, that is literally bursting with life, love, humor, wit, and the stuff of epic theater. By the time the remaining two parts have opened, it will undoubtedly be regarded as the theatrical peak of the season. Although “Voyage” is stuffed with many characters and plenty of turbulent events, it moves forward chronologically, that is until Act II, when the play goes back to cover events from the same time period, but in different locations. Certainly any play by Stoppard tends to be a challenge, if also entertaining. But know that “Voyage” will have you panting for the next play (Part II opens Thursday, December 21, and Part III Thursday, February 15), that is unless you opt to see them all in one of the marathon performances scheduled for mid-March.
Forget about boning up with books on the era and/or biographies of the famous and not-so-famous characters that Stoppard singles out for dramatic consideration. Good luck to those of you who have the time and inclination. But now having seen the first play, may I respectfully suggest that you don’t have to do anything but surrender to the often humorous discourse, the emotional disarray, and the romantic escapades of the Bakunin family and that bunch of wonderfully eccentric and brilliant upstarts who enter this circle of family and friends as they face changing times in pre-Revolution Russia.
Stoppard’s intellectually visceral drama is so well served by O’Brien that it is hard to imagine this outstanding dramatic achievement in other hands. While it is easy, at this point, to talk about the abundance of dazzling language that comes with a Stoppard play, it isn’t easy to share the stunning impact of O’Brien’s direction and the awesome imagery created within the breathtaking frames, the work of co-set-designers Bob Crowley and Scott Park.
Sprawling yet site-specific, “Voyage” covers the period between 1833 and 1844 and takes place in Premukhino (150 miles northwest of Moscow), the estate of the wealthy land-owning and “soul-owning” (serfdom was the order of the day in Russia with the value of estates determined by the number of souls in servitude) Bakunin family, and in Act II other locales across Russia such as St. Petersburg and Moscow. In this act, we see how Stoppard and his characters address and tie up the loose ends of various relationships and restore missing links of the plot.
Despite the family members and the number of people who are prescribed to make their entrances and exits, “Voyage” is initially focused on Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), a most amusing, if rebellious, irresponsible, and flighty young man just returned from college. A real buttinsky, who talks a good game about love and free will, he is, however, also devoted to the welfare and happiness of his four sisters, Varenka (Martha Plimpton), Tatiana (Kellie Overbey), and Alexandra (Annie Purcell), but in particular to Liubov (Jennifer Ehle), whose impending marriage he disapproves. All the sisters figure prominently in the engaging story, are interestingly characterized, and are beautiful to look at in Catherine Zuber’s elegant costumes. Looking askance at Michael’s unsettling rants on the subject of free will are the family patriarch, Alexander Bakunin (Richard Easton) and his wife, Varvara (Amy Irving). Easton is marvelous as the grumpy but saddened Bakunin as he senses the old way of life slipping away.
As expected, the plot lines converge and thicken considerably as Michael and his classmate philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour) and Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), an excitable literary critic of the middle class with limited education, align themselves to champion, in the face of severe censorship, a more nationalistic culture and literature. The French Revolution, however, serves as the ideal for Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his compatriot the poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), who are more pragmatic in their aspirations for a new societal politic.
Don’t think for a moment that Stoppard has merely collected together a group of bearded Russian intellectuals who just talk, although the talk is often quite funny as it often reflects the naivete of these progressive and impetuous thinkers. Hawke, as Michael, employs a splendidly affected countenance of self-adulating narcissism. And Crudup, as Belinsky, has never had a better opportunity to define as idiosyncratic a character as is Belinsky, whose monologue defining the role of a critic is a mesmerizing highpoint. They, as do the women in the play, vacillate in love as easily as in their convictions. Also introduced are playwrights du jour Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) and Pushkin (Adam Dannheisser), whose duel and death is glossed over with aplomb.
The production features some visually stunning scenes, including a mass of impoverished “souls,” a “Fancy-Dress” ball, and couples enjoying the wintry sport of ice-skating. The spectacle is spread across the black reflective revolving stage. Most stunning of the numerous scenic effects is Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, indicated as a hanging ice sculpture. All in all (and there’s plenty of all), Stoppard keeps the relationships, failed and otherwise, front and center. It is hard not to think of “Voyage” (pending responses to Shipwreck and Salvage) as Chekhovian in its emotional and intellectual purity. It’s hard to think of a play that will top this one at awards time. 4 stars.
“The Coast of Utopia: Voyage Part I,” running with Parts II and III through May 13, Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. $65 to $100. www.telecharge.com or www.lct.org.