Monday, May 06, 2013

Two Stoppard plays

FOR THE RECORD, whatever the record might be, we saw two plays by Tom Stoppard on Saturday, down in Berkeley. We caught them just in time; I'm sorry to tell you they've closed. Comments are justifiable, though, because one or another or, I hope, both might well be remounted next season: they constitute the first two-thirds of a trilogy, whose closing piece has been promised for next year.

The trilogy is The Coast of Utopia, which, as stated by Wikipedia, focusses on "the philosophical debates in pre-revolution Russa between 1833 and 1866." The trilogy runs nine hours, Wikipedia further states, and I can believe it: the two plays we saw, Voyage and Shipwreck, ran close to three hours each.

My experience with Stoppard is insufficient — not entirely my fault: his plays aren't given sufficient attention by the companies whose productions we visit. We've seen, let's see, Travesties, On the Razzle, Arcadia, maybe The Invention of Love. His translation of The Seagull, too, and of course the movie Shakespeare in Love, whose screenplay he co-wrote (with Marc Norman).

Nor have I read any of his plays. This will distress my reclusive friend in Corvallis, in the unlikely event he reads this: he lent me a copy of The Invention of Love months ago, and I haven't yet got to it.

It was Travesties that put me off Stoppard. I was a dedicated Joycehead for decades, and the idea of fooling around with historical fact, throwing Joyce and Tzara and Lenin together on stage simply because they happened to live for a short time in the same city where they might have met, seemed not only dubious in terms of ethics, but downright shameful. It seemed to my priggish standards an assault on the dignity of Joyce's accomplishments; certainly the dignity of the situations he suffered in those Zurich years.

Of course I've come to realize the absurdity, the ignorance, the uselessness, the short-sightedness of my outrage at Stoppard's "liberties." An outrage facilitated, by the way, by my not having actually read or seen Travesties at the time: it was only a few seasons ago that I first saw it, produced — brilliantly, I thought — by the Shotgun Players.

It was the same theater that brought us Voyage and Shipwreck the other day. They are truly a marvelous company, engaging, resourceful, enterprising. Their little Ashby Stage, a storefront theater with a steeply raked audience seating perhaps a hundred, is obviously limited in terms of facilities, but where other companies wallow in theatrical resources, Shotgun dances cleverly and gracefully in theatrical imaginativeness and enterprise.

I've complained here about certain productions in other theaters, where the urge to make Shakespeare, for example, "relevant" to today's audiences has sometimes resulted in compromises with what seems to me the intent and meaning of the script. The idea seems to be that the audience can't understand the complexity and seriousness of the play unless it's pushed at them in theatrical dress more current. The result is Troilus and Cressida, say, performed like an Iraq War movie. You alter the play to make your audience "understand" it, even though the result is not the play Shakespeare wrote.

What Shotgun did with Stoppard's complex and serious plays was alter the audience, not the scripts. The alteration was simple enough: a member of the company came out onstage a few minutes before curtain and explained a few details, in the course of which aspects of Russian art, philosophy, and society of 180 years ago — not to mention the French Revolution, the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, Marx, George Sand, and a few other items — was easily and gracefully presented.

What a pleasure, to attend a theater whose audience is treated like a collection of intelligent men and women, interested in such things, and capable of following simple declarative sentences! And the printed program, too, was a masterpiece of clarity and precision, dispensing with the usual format and setting instead a timeline of the dramatic content of the two plays, another of the French Revolution, biographies of the characters Stoppard involves in his plays, and synopses of the action.

The plays are meaty, no question. Of the two, Voyage, the first of the trilogy, seemed to me the more fascinating, largely because of its structure. Act I, set on a Chekhov-like country estate near Moscow, presents nine scenes centered on the wealthy Bakunin family, four daughters and a son (Michael) and their parents, guests, and serfs.

Act II moves the action to Moscow and Petersburg, following the same characters (and a few new ones) through the same time period, 1833-1844, backfilling details and motivation and consequences.

The play is "about" the lassitude and hopelessness and uncertainty of the Russia of the period, mired in the serfdom economy, torn between fascination and envy for Europe (especially the freedom of France and the dedication of Germany) and an obstinate loyalty to the antiEuropean qualities of the eternal Mother Russia.

All this is slowly, carefully spooled out through conversation, with a few set pieces at critical junctures. The economy, agriculture, law, religion, literature or the lack of it — those are the subjects, ostensibly: but the real substance of Stoppard's play is the complexity, the inheritance, the philosophical difficulty and the eventual failure of a historical moment, reaching back to the Age of Reason and the French Revolution that followed it, and forward to the long night that would follow the events of this play, seventy more years before the Russian Revolution, then ninety more to our own time, when the Russian failure seems just as surely sealed.

Shipwreck follows Bakunin and his foil the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky to Paris, 1846-47. Where the first play introduced literati and liberals as guests of the Bakunin country estate, Bakunin himself is now seen as a guest in the cosmopolitan home of the wealthy Alexander Herzen, half German and half Russian, at home in neither society. In a similar structure, though much more linear in its chronology, Stoppard narrows his focus, drawing the net tighter around his characters, propelling us to the inevitable futility of the 1848 Paris revolution in the first act, then in the second dissolving the tension in the anticlimax of the Herzen household in Nice.

I can hardly wait to see the final play, Salvage. In fact I'll probably have to buy the scripts of all three and read them soon; the production can't come soon enough for me. If Shipwreck was less gripping than Voyage, it was probably because it is after all the centerpiece of the trilogy. The first play stands on its own; the second needs the first and, I'm sure, the third.

I can't say enough about the principles among the cast. Joseph Salazar was deep and changeable as Michael Bakunin; Nick Medina was smoldering and intense and brilliant as Belinsky; Jonah Rotenberg was sometimes meditative, sometimes quick and brittle as Herzen. It's a huge cast, and there were a couple of weaker actors in lesser roles, but for the most part I was persuaded throughout the afternoon and evening.

The director was Patrick Dooley, artistic director of Shotgun. I'm glad he's where he is; intelligent theater needs an intelligent and effective master in a community like Berkeley. But when I think what he might be able to do a few hundred miles north…

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