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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Vivian Beaumont, New York

By Marilyn Stasio

  (L. to R.) Ethan Hawke and Richard Easton/Photo: Paul Kolnik

As Lincoln Center patrons surely know by now, there is nothing sadder than watching a puny play on a magnificent stage. So the first thing that must be said of Jack O' Brien's spectacular production of The Coast of Utopia (Part One-Voyage), the first installment of Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy set in the tumultuous era of pre-Revolution Russia, is that it restores a sense of grandeur to the great stage of the Beaumont.

Validating Stoppard's status as an intellectual rock star, O'Brien puts on a dazzling sound-and-light show for the fans. To the pounding pulse of oceanic orchestral music, the stage is swept up in the crackling electricity of a storm that both illuminates key figures in the complex story and signals the political and social turmoil of the period. Meanwhile, off in the shadows, a huge mob of shrouded peasants stands huddled behind a scrim to remind us of the human misery that will show its face in the revolution to come. (For that spectacle, theatergoers must wait for Part Two: Shipwreck(see next review) and Part Three: Salvage of the trilogy.)

For now, with the spirit of rebellion against the despotic Tsar Nicholas I confined to a handful of young writers and thinkers in Moscow, life is still placid on the country estate of Alexander Bakunin, a wealthy landowner played with hearty Russian soul by Richard Easton. Bakunin and his wife (Amy Irving) are models of Chekhovian complacency as they contentedly fuss over the marital prospects of their four pretty daughters. But the household is thrown into a tizzy when son Michael( Ethan Hawke) comes home to visit and forbids his beloved sister Liubov (the luminous Jennifer Ehle) to wed, on the grounds that a dull marriage of convenience is out of step with the new spirit of freedom that has galvanized intellectual Muscovites.

Given a wonderful firebrand performance by Hawke, Michael Bakunin exuberantly expands on the liberating ideas of writers and philosophers like Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) and especially Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne), whose dream of a constitutional republic will put the match to their revolutionary fires. Although Michael lures a few of these charismatic fellows to his family estate (sending the Bakunin sisters into swoons), it isn't until the scene shifts to Moscow in the second act that we get the full blast of the intellectual passion that makes these young lions so sexy.

Instead of lumbering the Moscow mise en scene with heavy interiors, set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask inventively capture the city's magical beauty by suspending a wondrous ice castle of St. Basil's in mid-air and covering the vast stage floor with a mirrored ice-skating pond. With the polemical heat steaming out of coffee houses and literary salons where the intelligentsia are engaged in fierce philosophical debate on art and politics, the fire-and-ice imagery brilliantly captures the mood of the moment - and the spirit of things to come.


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