The time is 1833 and the setting is the Bakunin family’s country estate.
In Tom Stoppard’s VOYAGE, Part I of THE UTOPIA trilogy, the search for
a “new Russia” begins. While their conversation may
sound comically Chekhovian, “to Moscow, to Moscow”, their urgency
expresses the need for a more civilized way of life.
Whether that can really exist in the Russia of this period is the question.
Stoppard’s cast of characters from Turgenev to Herzen, are the historical
artists and revolutionaries whose writings fueled the Bolshevik Revolution
nearly a century later. And while these inspired young thinkers are fictionalized
here, the issues they raise are all about philosophy.
If this sounds like a droll event, you just have to see it yourself because
VOYAGE is actually arresting. Beginning with the image of Alexander Herzen
seated like an ill, consumed Thinker, swirling into the billowing sea, VOYAGE
is a feast of visual and literary imagery and contrasting elements. For instance,
for the opulence of a fancy dress ball, one huge dripping ice sculpture chandelier
of St. Petersburg is set against a vast black stage. Grand illusion is at work
and so are the master minds of the great revolution, illusory or not.
Ethan Hawke plays the patrician rebel Michael Bakunin with a feverish bad
boy nature, lots of attitude and glib gestures. If his lofty ideas speak to
us, it’s because he expresses them in our contemporary idiom. Even more
impassioned and desperate is Billy Crudup as Belinsky. If he’s a literary
critic, Bakunin’s father wails, “so was Robespierre”. Richard
Easton plays the patriarch who witnesses the end of the family’s trajectory
with aplomb, revealing his sadness while noticing his own comic insignificance.
As his much younger wife, Amy Irving punctuates the action as she shifts shrewdly
from matriarch to socialite. The most challenging role though is that of Alexander
Herzen, who addresses the crux of the revolution – the emancipation of
the serfs. As portrayed by Brian F. O’Byrne he is an idealist of stern
and self righteous demeanor.
Unfortunately, what begins so easily with complex ideas stated simply becomes
ponderous in Act II. Here the events discussed in the first Act are reenacted
as they occurred in Moscow, introducing us to some characters we’ve previously
only heard about, but mostly reacquainting us with the same players reiterating
the same ideas they espoused in Act I.
But the finale brings us back to the Bakunin’s estate, with the focus
now on their serfs. That mass of hooded slaves who looked so ghostlike in the
background, now hover like the hooded victims of Abu Ghraib. While it leaves
us guessing about the next two plays that form the UTOPIA trilogy, it also
makes us aware that Stoppard is writing about Revolution with an eerie sense
of the zeitgeist.
Thats This Week on Broadway. Im Isa Goldberg.