Every voyage requires packing. Tom Stoppard's "Voyage" is certainly packed - with characters, big ideas, stunning visuals and, alas, vast stretches that can be tedious and emotionally frigid.
"Voyage" is the first of three plays making up "The Coast of Utopia," which charts the rise of revolution in mid-19th-century Russia. The production, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont, follows a 2002 London premiere. This production is the third partnership between the author and director Jack O'Brien.
The first installment begins in 1833 and tracks events for about a decade - a time during which a foundation for rebellion was laid. The play traces this period twice, actually. Act I unwinds at a country estate. Act II rewinds, moving to Moscow and St. Petersburg and illuminating events we've previously seen. The halves (the first focusing on matters of the heart, the latter on the mind) form a sort of jigsaw puzzle that demands your full concentration. Note: This isn't a play to see after cocktails - even with the synopsis.
"Voyage's" central figure is the future anarchist Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), a young man who lives off his landowner father, Alexander (Richard Easton). When not meddling in his four sisters' lives, the mercurial Michael seeks a purpose for his own. That search leads him to Moscow, where he meets men whose words and ideas help reform Russia's repressive political system. Among them are philosophy student Nicholas Stankevlch (David Harbour) and literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup). Writers Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne) and Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) make brief appearances.
O'Brien expertly guides the large cast. Hawke delivers a high-octane and edgy performance as the egotistical Bakunin; Easton adds dignity as his loving father. Crudup steals the show as the impassioned and impoverished Belinsky. Jennifer Ehle, as Michael's lovesick sister, provides much-needed emotion for the proceedings, while Martha Plimpton makes a vivid impression as his most adventurous sibling.
Like any Stoppard play, "Voyage" Is brainy and complex. There's talk of art, philosophy, politics, love and morality. Not all of it is scintillating. Nor do we come to care about the characters, even as they die or are exiled. That's a problem. "Voyage" ultimately feels less like a cohesive story than a series of snapshots.
But the snapshots are impressive. The production is a triumph for designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting). Together they've created indelible images – none more powerful than an opening tableau of downtrodden serfs who haunt the almost three-hour story. But the play never lives up to the power that initial image promises.
The game's afoot! Tom Stoppard's thrilling trilogy of 19th-century Russian thinkers and the women who loved them, "The Coast of Utopia," got under way last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater with "Part One: Voyage."
As Bette Davis once said of old age: "It ain't for sissies."
But forget what you may have heard about the plays: There is no required reading list, only a willingness to accept art as wondrously disordered as life.
Stoppard has hit upon an enthralling, little-known story and deftly welded it into a soap opera for the thinking classes.
He takes the rebellious Russian Intelligentsia over a period of some 30 years starting in the early 1830s, shows how the power of their ideas brought about the eventual end of Russian serfdom and finally, after their deaths, influenced the overthrow of Czarist rule.
Stoppard then weaves this life of ideas through the personal lives of the actual men and women who generated it, along the way running dazzling circles around the philosophic concepts of Hegel, Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Wow! Whew!
These people (not the philosophers) and their interplay - the wealthy Bakunin family, sons of the serfowning landed gentry, a few middle-class journalists and others - are compellingly presented by a cast of 26, including Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Josh Hamilton, David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Bryan F. O'Byrne and Martha Plimpton.
Making this first installment more complex is Stop pard's oblique manner of telling the story in a nonlinear way: The first three scenes of Act Two come chronologically in between the first two scenes of Act One.
Confusing? A little, at least until you realize the scheme of things. Each of the play's 23 scenes is also marked, albeit briefly, by a date projected above the stage.
When "Utopia" was first staged at Britain's National Theatre years ago, all three parts were unveiled for the critics in a one-day, nine-hour marathon.
In the fashion of Wagner's operatic "Ring" cycle, the three plays are said to stand alone - and to an extent they do.
That said, I suspect the National and Trevor Nunn, the original director, knew what they were doing when they showed them in one fell swoop, for it's while taken as a whole that they make most poetic and dramatic sense.
For this New York production, whirlingly directed by Jack O'Brien, Stoppard has nipped and tucked the plays to about 81/2 hours total. So far, the staging is less passionate than the London version: There seems more motion and less heat.
Major improvements here are the superb, evocative settings by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask – though whoever came up with the idea of using stationary puppets behind a scrim to represent the dead souls of the Bakunin estate should have thought again.
There will be more time later in the story to consider the actors swirling through the trilogy (O'Brien makes telling use, by the way, of the often derided Beaumont stage), but even at this first stopping point, enormous praise is due to Crudup's mousy-looking but valiant sketch of the great Russian critic Belinsky; O'Byrne's centered revolutionary, Herzen; and the shining-faced Ehle as the doomed, Chekovian-like Bakunin sister, Liubov.
The world turns quickly in Lincoln Center Theater’s exhilarating production of Tom Stoppard’s “Voyage,” the first installment of his “Coast of Utopia” trilogy about Russian intellectuals in the 19th century dreaming of revolution.
It isn’t simply the industriously employed revolving stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the play opened last night, that gives the heady sense of an entire culture about to spin off its axis. As directed by Jack O’Brien and performed with freshness and vigor by an immense and starry cast led by Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup, “Voyage” pulses with the dizzying, spring-green arrogance and anxiety of a new generation moving as fast as it can as it tries to forge a future that erases the past.
The play may have been written by a man in his 60s, and its principal performers are at least into their 30s, yet even more than in its London incarnation at the National Theater, where I saw it four years ago, “Voyage” is paced and defined by the quicksilver changes of mood and conviction that come from being young in a time of flux — by the feeling that everything and nothing is possible. It’s a work infused with the metabolism that lets college students talk furiously until dawn about big thoughts they are sure have never been thought before.
Given this play’s awareness of the futility of prophesying, I am not going to predict that the succeeding parts of this production of Mr. Stoppard’s trilogy — “Shipwreck,” which opens on Dec. 21, and “Salvage,” which opens on Feb. 15 — will maintain the same standard as its characters slide into middle age and disenchantment. But youth, at least, has been served in high style.
This is especially gratifying since Lincoln Center Theater’s decision to bring “The Coast of Utopia” to New York had sounded like a grand if honorable folly. With its cast of 44 (playing more than 70 roles), its lightning changes of scenery and nine hours of stage traffic portraying three decades of fraught history, “Utopia” was heavy lifting even for the National, which is accustomed to the epic.
When the trilogy opened in the summer of 2002, directed by Trevor Nunn, London critics were respectful but hardly transported. (It may have been a mistake to ask them to sit through all three plays in one day, though I had a good time, even if my legs did not.)
How could Americans, with their notoriously short attention spans, be expected to thrill to long conversations about the relative merits of German philosophers, conducted by historical figures (Michael Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Vissarion Belinsky) who are hardly household names? (This is a play full of throwaway lines like, “We were discussing transcendental idealism over oysters, and one thing led to another.”)
Yet this “Voyage” is the opposite of a drag. Mr. Stoppard, Mr. O’Brien and the genius set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask have refitted and streamlined the play in ways that both quicken pace and enhance clarity. And not to sound shallow when the subject is so deep, but did I mention that it all looks absolutely ravishing?
The lively center of “Voyage,” set from 1833 to 1844, is the land-wealthy, serf-holding Bakunin family, which is dominated by the patriarchal Alexander (Richard Easton, in superb form after being hospitalized for cardiac arrhythmia during previews) and his iconoclastic son, Michael (Mr. Hawke), who is idolized by his four marriageable sisters.
To them Michael imparts, with dictatorial absoluteness, his shifting infatuation with a series of big ideas as articulated by the likes of Fichte, Schelling, Kant and Hegel. The play’s first half is set on the Bakunin country estate, Premukhino, upon which Michael’s latest intellectual sparring partners from Moscow descend, upsetting the household’s domestic and sexual chemistry. As one of these visitors observes, Premukhino is a sylvan dream that allows you “to believe in the possibility of escape, of transcendence.”
If Premukhino is a place for contemplation and abstraction, then Moscow is the reality, where theory meets practice and crashes. It is here that much of the second half of “Voyage” takes place, providing a different frame for the same years and characters portrayed in the first act.
By the action-packed standards of “Les Misérables,” that other historical epic on Broadway with a revolving set, not much happens in “Voyage,” little more than in Chekhov (to whom Mr. Stoppard pays sly homage). People fall tentatively and passionately in love, with one another and with theories. Several become ill and die; some become editors and writers of radical journals that antagonize the czarist government. Mostly, though, people just talk: about the cultural backwardness of Russia, the shape of history, the nature of reality.
Yet “Voyage” courses with a vitality that makes “Les Misérables” feel static. The production opens with the extraordinary image of a man suspended in midair in a chair (it’s Herzen, played by Brian F. O’Byrne), in a state of somber contemplation, overtaken and swallowed by what appears to be an ocean rising into a tidal wave. The vision sets the tone for a work in which intellectual theory is forever being overwhelmed by the rush of the real.
That’s the conflict that shapes most of Mr. Stoppard’s work, from the rueful romantic drama of “The Real Thing” to the electrified musical politics of “Rock ’n’ Roll,” now onstage in London. Like those plays, “Utopia” portrays people who, determined to pursue a life of the mind, keep discovering that life has a disruptive mind of its own.
Mr. Stoppard has trimmed the philosophical debates considerably from the script in London, which may dilute academic complexity but enhances the production’s breathless momentum. Mr. O’Brien, a skilled veteran of Stoppard (“Hapgood,” “The Invention of Love”) and heroic scale (the Lincoln Center Theater “Henry IV”), does a first-rate job of conveying restless, unending movement with grace and fluidity.
He is given sterling support by the rich designs of Catherine Zuber (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting) and Messrs. Crowley and Pask, who manage to sustain throughout a clear double focus on individual personalities and an entire uneasily stratified society. (In addition to the several dozen performers, a haunting phalanx of statues holds vigil upstage.)
As for the central performances, there isn’t space here to describe them in the detail they warrant. If some lack the subtlety of their London predecessors, none are wanting in present-tense vividness. (Mr. Easton, Amy Irving, Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton, as members of the same fraught family, are especially affecting. And I enjoyed David Cromwell’s take on an aging, worldly man of letters.)
Though Herzen dominates the trilogy (and the brooding Mr. O’Byrne certainly seems up to the task), it is Bakunin fils and his friend Belinsky, a socially inept literary critic, who set the energetic pace for “Voyage.” The duty is joyously fulfilled by Mr. Hawke, born to play the excitable egoist Bakunin, and Mr. Crudup, unmatchable in conveying the discomforts of self-consciousness.
When the house lights came up at the end of “Voyage,” I felt as if a thick novel in which I had totally lost myself had been snatched from my hands. Bring on the next chapter, please. I can’t wait to watch these young idealists grow up.
It's conceivable that many will approach "The Coast of Utopia" as a highbrow cultural chore. The opening installment of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, "Voyage" is a lengthy play about philosophy, politics, literature and intellectual life in pre-Revolution Russia as well as, in many ways, an extended prologue to the six hours still to come. Sound arduous? It's not. With one magnificent theatrical flourish within the first few minutes, director Jack O'Brien has swept away all sense of trepidation, providing thrilling assurance that this brawny, brainy dissertation could not be in more capable hands.
There's more talk than drama spread across Stoppard's extended canvas, which certainly requires concentration. But regardless of one's interest in 19th century Russian history, the novelistic play is a spry, witty and thoroughly intriguing account of men and ideas.
O'Brien has conquered the more inaccessible peaks of Stoppard's scholarly expeditions before. In his Lincoln Center Theater production of "The Invention of Love," he rendered the playwright's daunting erudition, meticulous research and seemingly academic subject (poet and classicist A.E. Housman) cogent, immediate and even emotional. And with his last job at the Beaumont, "Henry IV," the director proved his muscular wrangling skills with a large cast and sprawling drama.
His command here is even more impressive. Working with an expert ensemble (some of whom play other roles in parts two and three), O'Brien again finds not only the beauty but the air and light in Stoppard's dense language.
Describing the opening image would diminish its ravishing impact, but a key component is the positioning of Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne), suspended center stage. While the Socialist radical is featured only marginally in "Voyage," he becomes a key figure in "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," the trilogy's second and third sequential, self-contained plays.
There's a big-picture handle on the material here that bodes well for the long-range project. Part two opens Dec. 21 and part three Feb. 15, with the complete trilogy playing in rep through mid-March.
Stoppard focuses on five friends actively engaged in shaping history with varying degrees of efficacy as philosophers, politicians or artists. Fumbling at times but invariably passionate, the men share a utopian desire while finding their own path to carve a more dignified future for Russia. Their collective spirit represents the seeds of revolution.
Chekhovian in feeling yet Shavian in its appetite for political argument, "Voyage" spans the summer of 1833 through autumn 1844. The settings are Premukhino, the country estate of wealthy landowner Alexander Bakunin (Richard Easton); Moscow; and St. Petersburg.
The ongoing existence of serfdom is symptomatic of a stifling czarist culture ripe for overthrow. "My estate is of 500 souls and I am not ashamed," says Bakunin, while the faceless mass of servants look on hauntingly from behind a ragged upstage scrim. Over the course of the action, the real world's increasing intrusion on this sheltered domain is reflected in Bakunin's failing faculties -- complacent tradition threatened by radical change. In a perf gently poised between the cantankerous and the wistful, Easton provides "Voyage" with a melancholy heart.
The play's central figure, however, is Bakunin's son, the future anarchist Michael (Ethan Hawke). With Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), a literary critic from a less privileged class, and fellow Moscow U. student Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), he forms a philosophy circle devoted to German thinkers such as Kant and Hegel. Bemoaning the idolatry in retrograde Russia of all things foreign and the absence of a defining national culture and literature (Pushkin is the exception, while Gogol is only beginning to emerge), the three young idealists are nevertheless prevented by censorship from speaking out.
Herzen shares the trio's discontent, yet he approaches the situation not as a romanticist but with a rationalist's desire for action. While Bakunin, Belinsky and Stankevich look to the Germans, Herzen and his friend, poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), eye the French Revolution as their model. Occasional appearances are made by novelist Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), a sportsman whose artistic ideals are not yet fully formed.
It's striking, even audacious, that Stoppard is not mining historical material for contemporary relevance. Political and cultural idealism have currency in any age, including our own, but the playwright's primary aim appears to be exploring a period of intense personal fascination purely within its own context. It's the ardor he brings to his lucid investigation of the play's influential figures and their complex relationships that makes that fascination contagious
The text has been streamlined since the play's 2002 premiere in London (where, unlike New York, the complete trilogy bowed simultaneously), with some of the more taxing passages tamed. And the design approach adopted here is entirely different. Where Trevor Nunn's original National Theater production made extensive use of William Dudley's CG projections, O'Brien collaborates with designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask on a more traditional presentation. (Crowley takes the lead on "Voyage," Pask on "Shipwreck"; the two will team on "Salvage.")
Using the full depth and imposing height of the Beaumont, the stage pictures here are breathtaking. Whether it's an elegant fancy-dress ball or skaters on a winter pond, with a glass rendering of St. Basil's Cathedral dripping icy stalactites above, the imagery is gorgeous. Catherine Zuber's richly detailed costumes and the delicate textures of Brian MacDevitt's lighting also are vital in making the play as alive visually as it is intellectually.
As much as the staging is vigorously theatrical, O'Brien's direction is also cinematic. With resourceful use of a turntable on the black, lacquered stage, he instills remarkable fluidity into a drama covering more than a decade and numerous principal characters, while precisely directing the audience's focus within each vast, handsomely composed frame.
Hawke (who worked with O'Brien in "Henry IV") has never been more charismatic, playing Bakunin with the swaggering self-assurance of a slightly effete rock star. Hitching his wagon to others smarter than he is, the reckless character bounces, untethered, from one philosophical doctrine to the next on his way to forging a political identity. But Bakunin seems certain he will leave his imprint on history. "I'm one of those who are born for their time," he declares.
Crudup's Belinsky is a far more humble, more subtly nuanced character. He's socially inept, jittery and a little awed by the idyllic environment of Premukhino at first ("It's like being in a dream ... and you all live here!" he marvels). But he fires up to reveal integrity and foresight in a galvanic monologue about the role of the critic and the inexorable links among art, humanity and liberty.
Harbour carves a soulful, amusing character out of excitable Stankevich, while in smaller roles, O'Byrne, Hamilton and Harner all suggest further developments to come. Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton make vivid impressions as two of Michael's adoring sisters. The romantic idealism of the Bakunin girls, inspired by George Sand, is poignantly echoed in the sad outcomes of their relationships.
O'Brien, his cast and creative team have set themselves a formidably high standard with "Voyage." If they can maintain it in "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," New York will have another theatrical epic to stand in terms of magnitude, ambition and achievement alongside such milestones as "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Angels in America."