Saturday, February 17, 2007

PLAY: "The Coast of Utopia: Salvage"

If you're expecting a climax in Salvage, the final piece in Tom Stoppard's intellectual trilogy The Coast of Utopia, you're going to be disappointed. You shouldn't be. Salvage offers a refined and magnificent conclusion, doing so without the troubling melodrama of Shipwreck and with a sleeker, more straightforward narrative than Voyage. Also, for patrons of the entire series, Salvage offers the most depth to its characters. They've all aged (along with the show) like fine wines: Ethan Hawke's Bakunin now has the scars of torture layered atop his unabashed exuberance, and at last, with the loss of his wife and deaf son, Brian F. O'Byrne's Herzen has lost enough to mourn.

How fitting then that Salvage begins with a twist on the trilogy's traditional opening: this time, Herzen doesn't vanish beneath the waves of a stormy sea. Instead, the sea dumps him in the middle of his nightmare, one in which he is haunted by Russian emigres like Marx, by dreams of his dead friends, and memories of his elusive and exiled past. The man isn't at sea, he is drowning, and this first act is the most fluid and turbulent that director Jack O'Brien (who is all but guaranteed a Tony) has conjured up. Theater is as much about making pictures as it is about telling stories, and the final shot of Act I, with Herzen letting down his guard (a symbolic umbrella) and accepting the purging drops of rain, is a magnificent, many-layered work of theater.

There are no tropes in this work; even the recycled themes (like the major events being relegated to the depths of the background or the varied watercolor hues of the scrim) seem new. Lucid dreams replace the confusion of images like the Ginger Cat, and the rich maturation of set pieces (always minimal, always essential) bring the words to life. Also, without melodramatic clutter, Stoppard's wit in the face of tragedy is easier to see. Furthermore, the pacing is so forceful that it leaves no ambiguity in the hues of revolutionary struggle.

Though the plot is secondary to the ideas being expressed within the show, the theme this time revolves around the establishment of a free Russian press, The Bell. The newspaper is really just a final attempt of aging revolutionaries to remain a part of the fight, but it ends up serving Stoppard as an emblem (ringing loud and clear) of the different approaches to war, from the liberal (peaceful resolution to struggle) to the Decemberist (attempted assassinations) to the next generation (Truth, Liberty, Freedom). The intellectual struggle is less heady here than in the previous installments: to war, or not to war, that is the question.

Along the way, Stoppard continues to introduce us to characters that all deserve their own plays. Billy Crudup might be missing from Salvage, but there are plenty of interesting characters to be found in Count Stanislaw Worcell (Richard Easton), the doddering but passionate voice of the past, Malwida von Meysenburg (Jennifer Ehle), the steely German governess, and once-peripheral but now-central characters like Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), his second wife, Natasha (Martha Plimpton), and the famed writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner). Easton is, as always, a pleasure, and Hamilton and Harner are even more mellifluous now than they were previously. As for Ehle, playing a disciplinarian may prove to be the best move of her career. Aside from showing off her range, stripping her of her all-too-easy dramatics forces her to find a deeper strength, and the controlled chaos that she experiences in the Herzen household is wonderful to see.

My one complaint about Salvage is that portions of the second act serve more as a coda to the trilogy than as a proper send-off to a lovely work. The final scene seems a bit perfunctory, although how else do you end such a laborious work? There are so many good moments to cite from the show, but I'll conclude with my favorite: a stage awash with stars (not just the actors), and Herzen lost in the dark gaps between twinkling lights. Out of the left wing of the audience, Bakunin slowly makes his way to the stage, a ghostly figure offering Herzen a rope with which to stay afloat. He saves the drowning man, even if it is just a dream, and then it is 1855, and the Tzar has died, and Bakunin, our poor, misunderstood hero, is washed away himself by a surge of celebrating emigres. That one scene right there--that one transition--is a play in of itself, and with The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard has given us eight hours of that "one" scene.

No comments: