I feel like I just started some important project last night but really I just saw a play. Tom Stoppard's "The Coat of Utopia" is a trilogy, and I just saw the first part "Voyage." It's about a circle of Russian intellectuals in the nineteenth centur: Michael Bakunin, Nicholas Stankevich, Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Herzen and Nicholas Ogarev. In last night's show they were all young and stupid--especially Michael Bakunin. Ethan Hawke did a great job playing somebody who was charismastic and idealistic and thinks the universe revolves around him. Billy Crudup was also great as Belinsky.
On the way out I pushed through what I swear I thought was a group of college students standing around near the entrance and then realized it was the cast I just saw. Billy Crudup is a tiny, tiny man.
There were times when the play actually reminded me of lj, I guess because it's one modern place where people sometimes get very intense about ideas. There's one scene where someone is considering printing a new essay in a newspaper and he's discussing getting it past the censors. He says, "I think we can do it if we change a couple of words. Two, in fact. "Russia" and "we." He suggests changing it to "certain people," like "Certain people are neither east nor west..." "The Rennaissance passed certain people by..." It reminded me of those lj posts where people try to respond to a post without referencing the actual post because that might be wanky.
So two more plays to go...
Someone get this woman another Tony! Her work in Part One is truly remarkable. It's no doubt a tough piece to play (I enjoyed it on the whole) and some of the actors (particularly the two younger sisters) have trouble not sounding strained in their effort to speak the language and to project their voices. Ehle, on the other hand, seems to have this down pat, quite naturally. It is she who speaks as if the words are hers, even when not saying anything of tremendous importance. She's also lucky to have the most emotionally fulfilling part.
I hear she has another emotional role (even bigger) in the second part. Anyone know what she does in the third?
She is really something special.
The play was incredible. I'd known the vague outline of the plot, and naturally I'd expected good acting, but wow. All of you who can get over to Lincoln Center for a piece of The Coast of Utopia, DO IT. I saw Voyage, and my goodness. There was lots and lots of philosophy, huge blocks of it, but delivered in such a way that it all made wonderful sense. Particularly Billy Crudup's speech about the need for a national literature; that really validated my being an English major, which I always have qualms about. And then the way that Prumkhino, Ethan Hawke's family estate, was located as a site of stasis; the first real movement that happened there was the end of Act One, when all these autumn leaves kept falling. And really, that's static too; autumn is a time of the dying of the year, just as two of the characters died, and were talked about in that scene in the past tense. Billy Crudup was so passionate about literature, and Ethan Hawke was such an aesthete promanading as an intellectual, and Jennifer Ehle was such a Meg March, and really it was just truly stunning.
Though beautifully-produced and nicely acted by a game cast, THE COAST OF UTOPIA: VOYAGE is a dense, heady stew with little entertainment value or dramatic interest to engage even the most erudite theatergoer. Though I personally found the philosophical arguments fascinating (I've a background in comparative religions), it doesn't compensate for the unnecessarily academic, dry presentation of a society riding the tides of historical change through the eyes of a Russian family and their extended circle. The events of the play, fragmented into different time frames and points of view, have not been dramatized in such a manner as to allow much audience identification and, as a result, the play underwhelms and it's hard to care. The introduction of characters and relationships is often confused and confusing, with the first act narration of offstage events often involving plot points and situations not clarified till Act Two. And after three hours, to have all the philosophical and historical ruminations of the play reach its conclusion in the rather cliched tradition of yet another end-of-empire story seems staggeringly anti-climactic and not particularly worth the effort. I have tickets to the next two installments but I seriously doubt that I'll force myself to endure more of this non-event.
After dinner, we walked over to Lincoln Center to immerse ourselves in Stoppard. On the one hand you could fairly say that Coast of Utopia is a lot of "blah, blah, blah" with very little plot (of course so is life, if you're not careful). There were some zingers, though. The problem were the long bits that were challenging to follow if you hadn't read up on your undergraduate philosophy, or have some passing understanding of Russian history of the period. Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup command the stage for much of the play and they both gave extremely energtic and convincing performances. (Considering that Hawke is playing an anarchist, his discipline is notable.) Amy Irving and Martha Plimpton were also stand outs in their roles as mother and sister to Hawke's spoiled aristocrat, Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin's father, a somewhat grumpy feudal landowner who is fast losing patience with his son's disobedience, was excellent. A shame for David Manis--he gave a masterful performance--who is the understudy as he will be on stage only until the official opening on November 27, when Richard Easton returns. (Easton's illness delayed the opening after he collapsed on stage mid-show last month.) One of the more memorable lines is reserved for him, "You have turned your sisters' faces away from the light of parental love, and poisoned their minds with liberal sophistries dressed up as idealism." Sitting in the center of the fourth row, I could clearly see the actors' faces as they grimaced, cried, shrieked, and seemed to effortlessly extemporize. With Crudup and Hawke mostly downstage center all night, it was a special treat to be so close.
The question remains: do we see Parts Two and Three? That's another five hour long history lesson about ideology and love. We'll have to think about that...
[...] i went to the lincoln centre with A to watch tom stoppard's voyage. it was so so so good. philosophical and poignant and just brilliant. oh and ethan hawke played michael bakunin. plus, our tickets only cost twenty bucks each because of a nifty student programme thingum. woah. (: i love stoppard. (: [...]
This first play of Tom Stoppard's ambitious trilogy concerning late 19th century Russian politics and philosophy, is a stunner, a rich feast for playlovers that made me ravenous for the two to come (in December and January, respectively). As I have resisted reading the plays in advance, the superstructure of the trilogy is not yet clear to me, but I can say that this first third, as sensuously staged by Jack O'Brien, has the sweep and the detail of a leisurely-paced epic novel. Stoppard's dialogue made my ears prick up, O'Brien's direction quickened my senses. There are a couple of performances I found off-putting but, as neither is major in this first play, I'd rather just say that this is mostly a tremendous ensemble. Standing out among the pack are a surprisingly bold Ethan Hawke, who is taking big chances that pay off, and a captivating Billy Crudup, whose physical work here is remarkable: I think these are the best performances I've seen on stage from either.
[...] The closest the play's women get to something more liberating is reading George Sand - in other words, a world that is fictional. The chief exception to Utopia's climate of feminine compliance is represented by a scene in Shipwreck between Natalie Herzen (Jennifer Ehle) and Maria Ogarev (Amy Irving). Maria has left her husband, Nicholas Ogarev, and gone to Paris to undertake a more bohemian existence. Next to her, Natalie, for all her high-flown revolutionary idealism, seems almost quaint.
This scene, which is one of my favorites in Utopia, reminds me of something Tom Stoppard said during an early rehearsal. Namely: how it is one of the paradoxes of 19th-century radicalism that many of its leading proponents failed to shed their bourgeois conventions, and remained beholden to a way of life that, to us, can appear hidebound.
There's mention of said ripping scene at Martha Plimpton's as well- look in the comments.