Sir Tom Stoppard’s famous, award-winning trilogy, The Coast of Utopia (2002), centers on a group of Russian philosophers, radicals, anarchists and socialists in pre-revolutionary Russia (1833-1866). If the subject matter doesn’t sound enthralling, rest assured that one of Stoppard’s gifts is exploring arcane subject matters and infusing them with excitement, humanity and heart.
Shotgun Players produced the first two fascinating productions, Voyage and Shipwreck in 2012 and 2013. This year, the final and best, Salvage, as well as the first two plays, can be seen in repertory now at the Ashby Stage. Led by Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, Shotgun has taken a very complex series of plays, with difficult language, numerous characters and copious scene changes, and succeeded in presenting intriguing and beguiling dramas … all with fine acting.
Throughout the trilogy, we follow three main characters who are based on actual Russian historic figures. The first is Alexander Herzen (Patrick Kelly Jones), father of modern socialism and publisher, with Nicholas Ogarev (Sam Misner), of the influential mudslinging newspaper, The Bell.
Herzen is a total contradiction. As an illegitimate son of an extremely rich nobleman, he was left vast fortunes, yet he is responsible for creating the political climate that led to the 1861 emancipation of the serfs.
We also trace famed anarchist, Michael Bakunin (Joseph Salazar); and the prominent Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev (Richard Reinholdt). Recreated also are many other Russian poets, dreamers and radicals, who appear and disappear throughout the trilogy. The plays also explore the love lives of the Russians, whose avant-garde politics are matched by their frequent and broad-minded liaisons.
In Act 1 of the first play, Voyage, we meet a circle of young Russian university students who are followers of the Decembrists, the Russian army officers who, in 1825, were hung or exiled for protesting against Tsar Nicholas I’s assumption of the throne. Our student group first meets in the summer of 1833 at Premukhino, the vast Bakunin family estate at which Michael Bakunin and his four sisters reside. The group strains under the militaristic reign of the despotic Tsar Nicholas and adopts the forward-thinking German Idealism movement of Kant and Hegel. As time moves on to 1841, the somewhat adolescent philosophical debates have matured, but the political strife has worsened.
Act 2 gives us a fresh look at nearly the same years, 1834 to 1844, but in Moscow, not at the Bakunin estate. The contrast is stimulating, but not entirely successful. The political discussions continue to engage, but much confusion is caused by the introduction of new characters, in addition to all the personalities we met in Act 1.
In the next drama, Shipwreck, Alexander Herzen and his family have the opportunity to leave Russia for Paris in order to find medical help for his deaf son. Others in the circle also find their way to Paris. Although they are joyful at the onset of 1848 French Revolution, they are disillusioned and disheartened when French voters soon after choose to return to a monarchy.
The final play, Salvage, finds Herzen in London from 1853 to 1868. After the false start of French Revolution in 1848, he is at a low point in his personal and political life. Then, in 1855, Tsar Nicholas dies, and the reign of his successor, Alexander II, brings reforms. Bakunin is released from years in prison and exiled to Siberia. From there, he escapes and travels around the world to London. Herzen’s reunion with Bakunin, Turgenev and Ogarev leads to the founding of muckraking sheet, The Bell and, ultimately, to the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. Yet their joy at these events is soon dampened by a new generation of young radicals who insist on more immediate change, regardless of the consequences.
So, you may be wondering, why this internationally acclaimed trilogy is being produced by the Shotgun Players as opposed to a larger theater company? As he tells it, Artistic Director Patrick Dooley took a chance and filled out a form to obtain rights to The Coast of Utopia from the authorizing clearing house. Much to their surprise, Shotgun was granted the rights, apparently by an unknowing clerk, despite the fact that, simultaneously, Stoppard and his agent were in negotiations with A.C.T.
After verifying that the Shotgun legitimately obtained the rights, Stoppard then called Dooley and asked whether the company knew what they were getting into. Stoppard said that he admired Shotgun’s ambition. I suspect that he would now admire Shotgun’s achievement.
Stoppard writes engrossing, academic and intellectually stimulating drama, and The Coast of Utopia is one of his masterpieces and shouldn’t be missed. It is playing through May 3, 2014.
For information on production dates and times, visit Shotgun Players online.
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