Arts & Events
Voyage by Tom Stoppard at Shotgun Players is a beautifully produced, very dense play by arguably the greatest living playwright. It is the first play in the trilogy “Coast of Utopia” which won the Best Play Tony Award in 2007. This first segment is a historical drama of Russia from 1833 to 1844—a time of Revolution in Europe.
Its direction by Patrick Dooley, is flawless and fluid down to the set changes. But for the most part it plays like a typical “Three Sisters,” with predictable Chekhov-like, “we must get to Moscow” acting. You feel like you’re in Russia at a great rural estate or in the streets of St. Petersburg, but one often needs to make an effort to discern what’s happening. It also takes concentration to sort out the characters and their relationships. In the midst of this, there are a few extraordinary performances that should be seen.
But hurry if you want to see it, because it is selling out and closes its extended run on April 29.
If you don’t remember your Philosophy 101 or your post-Napoleonic history of Europe, if you haven’t read Pushkin or Turgenev, if may mean less to you than if you have—or it may spark an interest.
The play is about Russia’s struggle for freedom--a topic that is still in the headlines today. This is about their struggle a generation before Russia freed the serfs and when the Motherland was under the thumb of the Czar’s police state and his Censor. This struggle is for intellectual freedom: Russia has never had a Renaissance like the rest of Europe, free thought is as suppressed as it was in the Middle Ages and the people have been treated as children by the ruling Romanovs. The new rage is to study philosophy—Kant, Schelling, Hegel and “German Idealism.” It is mainly the sons and daughters of the land-holding gentry—their 1%ers—who are engaged in the study and the struggle. In their struggle for a life of the mind, they long for a national literature—which will give rise to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, and Gorky, later Pasternak, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn—and to date five Nobel Laureates in Literature and the fourth largest book producing nation
The cast of 21 actors are all talented and give it their best, but it is a hard-to-act piece. One performance stands above the rest: Nick Medina as V. Belinsky, the impoverished, less-educated revolutionary and literary critic, in the midst of aristocrats. Shy and awkward, ragged and a little dumpy among these lithe patricians, when he is aroused his rhetoric about the Revolution is entrancing and makes one want to rise to the Marseillaise. Medina knows how to play Stoppard: he directed Shotgun’s production of his “Travesties” a few years ago.
Other cameos reveal how this play might have won the Tony. When Matthew Lai, Richard Reinholdt, and Patrick Jones are on stage our attention brightens. Mr. Lai has the ability to inject comedy and realism into period acting, Mr. Reinholdt is a large and charismatic actor who swept us up in “The Norman Conquests” at Shotgun, and Mr. Jones as Alexander Herzen has clear power as an actor we hope to see more of perhaps in the other two installments of this trilogy should Shotgun produce them in future seasons. VOYAGE had productions in London, New York and Moscow, which starred such recognizables as Stephan Dillane, Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, and Martha Plimpton. Perhaps it takes actors of that caliber to capture our attention and pull us in.
The production values are reason enough to see it. There is the fascinating set design by Nina Ball in which the wall panels are suspended from a palm-like girder which the actors rearrange in a fascinating scene-change display. Artistic director Patrick Dooley understands that the scene change is an integral part of the show and takes no chances that attention or energy might be lost in the changing. The servants efficiently and methodically clear the table and store it just as it would be done in a wealthy home which helps take our imagination to the intended place. (The service of wine in crystal flutes by the actors playing waiters is a flawless supporting performance that truly does “take you there”.) The costumes by Alexae Visel are exquisite and a heroic undertaking to seamlessly outfit 21 players in lavish period apparel that doesn’t look like stage costumes.
Tom Stoppard (born Tomas Straussler) is a sort of G. B. Shaw for our time: ideas and language are his topics. He has won two Oscars for screenwriting (“Brazil” and “Shakespeare in Love”) and three other Tony Awards for Best Play (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Travesties,” “The Real Thing”). His writing is witty and sometimes mind-bogglingly complex. There is seldom sex and violence. He writes what I call “stay-awake” plays—you must make the effort to intellectually participate. He was born in the old Czechoslovakia, emigrated to Britain as a child, and often writes about the struggle for freedom behind any iron curtain.
THE COAST OF UTOPIA: VOYAGE
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Dooley
Nina Ball, Set Designer/ Chris Kristant, Properties Design/ Liz Lisle, Production Manager/.Joanie McBrien, Dramaturg/Matt Stines, Sound Design/Ray Oppenheimer, Light Design/Alexae Visel, Costume Design/
Hannah Birch Carl, Stage Manager
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II /Adrian Anchondo/ Zehra Berkman/ Kevin Clarke/ Christy Crowley / Britney Frazier/ Anne Hallinan/ Patrick Jones* /Chris Kristant/ Matt Lai/ Ben Landmesser / Caitlyn Louchard/ Casi Maggio Nick Medina/ John Mercer/ Nesbyth Reiman/ Rich Reinholdt / Joe Salazar/ Leanna Sharp/ Alex Shafer/ Sam Tillis
*Member of Actors' Equity Association
John A. McMullen II is a member of SFBATCC, ATCA, SDC, and hold an MFA in theatre. E J Dunne edits.