[...] The Coast of Utopia, whose first part is now in previews and opens Nov. 27, is a much-anticipated project. The three plays that make up Stoppard's epic- Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage - chronicle the lives and ideas of five artists and thinkers who laid the groundwork of the Russian Revolution: socialist writer Alexander Herzen, anarchist Michael Bakunin, novelist Ivan Turgenev, poet Nicholas Ogarev and critic Vissarion Belinsky.
"Tom never writes a play about one thing," O'Brien said. "He writes a play about a lot of stuff. This play is historical. All of these things actually happened to these people. It's very witty. It has to do with philosophy. It has to do with the evolution of independent thinking in Europe and Russia in the 19th century."
O'Brien previously directed Stoppard's Hapgood and The Invention of Love, but they didn't really prepare him for The Coast of Utopia, which the director called "the theatrical equivalent" of Wagner's Ring cycle. "It's some sort of experience," he said. "It's like watching a novel."
The cast of 44 includes Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brian O'Byrne and Martha Plimpton, an unusually starry group for a long run with a nonprofit theater company.
Part Two of the trilogy begins in December and will play in repertory with Part One as Part Three is being rehearsed. By Valentine's Day, all three will be up and running in tandem and continue through mid-March. The last three Saturdays of the run in February and March are marathons when all three plays - a total of 81/2 hours - can be seen in one day. The marathons are already sold out.
O'Brien thinks a marathon could be too much. For out-of-towners, he suggests catching consecutive performances of the three plays over two days by taking advantage of the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.
"So in an overnight, you can see all three plays, but you're not sitting there for an entire day and you have a little time to think and absorb it. I think that's the best way of doing it." [...]
[...] Last night we saw Voyage the first part of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy of plays. Thoroughly dramatic opening, with a stunning special effect of waves crashing on the stage got me to sit up in my seat. It was long and wordy, no surprise for Stoppard, but I was mesmerized. It helps to have read some Turgenev, to understand how modern ideas of the self came to Russia really at just the wrong time. To our eyes and ears, the Russians seem almost laughably naive, but they were struggling against a thousand years of groupthink, and needed time to adjust to seeing themselves as individuals in a modern setting. I hope to get back to see parts two and three next year. [...]
[...] Of course, a cast boasting Ethan Hawke, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving and Billy Crudup guarantees a full house, even if the show were a dissertation on the redeeming qualities of cat poop. Luckily for us all, Stoppard's jaunty script provoked far more interest and humor and kept the audience closer to the edge of their seats than any litterbox chatter I've encountered recently. [long, read on]
During a technical rehearsal last month for Voyage, when a light cue was being rewritten and much of the cast was hanging out in the audience seats of the Vivian Beaumont, Ethan Hawke remarked, "The waiting is harder than the acting."
Many actors would agree. Passing the time between set-ups, in fact, is such an integral part of the actor's life that it's a wonder no Stanislavsky or Uta Hagen has written a guide on The Art of Waiting. [...]
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