Last year Shotgun Players embarked on a massive undertaking with Voyage, the first part of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's nine-hour 2002 trilogy about Russian intellectual life in the 19th century. Now the Berkeley company kicks off its 2013 season with Shipwreck, the second play in the series. As an added bonus Shotgun's even reprising Voyage to run alongside Shipwreck in repertory, which is no small matter. The cast for just one of the plays is immense, especially for a smallish company; there are 22 people in Shipwreck alone. Next year we'll presumably be treated to all three.
Voyage centers around the family of young philosophical idler and future anarchist revolutionary Michael Bakunin. The play focuses as much on the romantic prospects of his four sisters as it does on the ever-shifting intellectual infatuations of his circle of friends as they flutter from one favored philosopher to another. In comparison, Shipwreck feels like the later seasons of Dawson's Creek, where all the characters have decamped to different cities. The particular focus is on Alexander Herzen, one of the friends from the first play, later to be known as the father of modern socialism. However forcefully he makes his argument in Patrick Kelly Jones's assured portrayal, here he's still very much a head-in-the-clouds intellectual, although this is the chapter in which he and his friends begin to get serious. The play follows Herzen from Russia to Paris, where he gets caught up in the giddiness of the revolution of 1848 and is disillusioned by the speedy fall of the Second Republic.
Although the bright young things are slowly finding their focus in this chapter, the play itself is all over the place. Herzen and his circle have lively debates about everything from free will to the nature of the Russian character, falling out with each other over trivialities such as the best method of making coffee or the existence of God and just as quickly making up again. Hertzen's wife Natalie (a tender Caitlyn Louchard) grapples with her own romantic convictions about universal love, and they try to figure out how to teach language and thought to their deaf child Kolya (a somber Nathan Weltzien, alternating with Sebastian Mora). And still there's the need to check in with some of the great minds of the first chapter and several new intellectuals of Herzen's acquaintance.
Long white strips of curtain dominate Nina Ball's inventive and versatile set, and artistic director Patrick Dooley does a good job of making the play's many, many scene changes entertaining in their own right. For a moment the focus is turned onto the many servants who are often overlooked by these self-styled socialists who are supposedly so concerned with the masses. Two small screens announce the time and place of each scene, although they're positioned so high and so far to the sides that they're easily overlooked if you're anywhere in the front half of the house.
Although there are some weak links, the Shotgun cast boasts so many strong actors that one wishes their characters were more fleshed out. Daniel Petzold gives us a small taste of the sensitivity of German poet George Herwegh, with Danielle O'Hare as his self-effacingly stoic wife Emma, but you'll have to go to the program notes or preshow lecture to discern their significance. Joseph Salazar is a charmingly happy-go-lucky, swashbuckling Bakunin, and Nick Medina is pained and stooped as the fiery critic Belinsky, who doesn't have much to do in this play but was significant in Voyage. Richard Reinholdt plays the novelist Ivan Turgenev with a puzzling smirk that ill befits the earnestness of the character. John Mercer and Christy Crowley have brief but memorable turns as an officious diplomat and a brazen estranged-wife-turned-artist's-model. After watching the play, I still have no idea who a few of the characters are or why they're there at all, including Megan Trout's effervescent Natasha Tuchkov, Don Wood's ramshackle Sazonov, or even Sam Misner's kindly Nicolas Ogarev, though I dimly recall that he was a character in Voyage.
Dooley keeps things moving admirably considering how much philosophical dialogue the play is made up of, but the play doesn't build up enough interest or investment in the characters to necessarily care about their debates. The use of female nudity is artfully done (so artfully that it mimics a famous Manet painting) but feels like a device rather than an organic part of the action because the action doesn't flow organically in the first place.
There's a moment near the end when it seems like the play is over, but then there's one more scene that only drives home the fact that the play should have ended when you thought it ended. Voyage jumped back and forth in time a lot, and Shipwreck doesn't do that as much. So a return to the beginning at the end of the play feels as if Stoppard is simply reminding us that this is the same trilogy, and this is the sort of thing that happens in it. At least there's no humanoid cat wandering around in this one like there is in the first chapter.
It's an engaging and intriguing play, and I'm glad Shotgun is taking on such an ambitious project. But at the same time, the unwieldy intellectual sprawl of the piece makes it seem pretty clear why it's taken so long for the Bay Area to get a chance to see the trilogy.
The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck runs through May 5, 2013 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit shotgunplayers.org.
All photos by Pak Han.