Watch verbose Russians in ‘Utopia’

Even the most devout theater devotees may balk at spending nearly nine hours watching a play, but last Saturday the Vivian Beaument Theater was packed with audience members who not only invested their day in the show, but paid well over a 100 dollars for the privilege.

“The Coast of Utopia,” the newest Tom Stoppard work to open in New York, is comprised of a trilogy of three two-act plays — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” — tracing the lives of young Russian intellectuals played by Ethan Hawke, Bryan F. O’Bryne and Jason Butler Harner in the years leading up to the Communist revolution. Though the plays certainly stand alone, their sequential nature and common characters beg for the shows to be seen in succession. Fortunately, the good people at Lincoln Center have made this possible by staging “marathons” of all three plays (with lunch and dinner breaks, of course) over nearly 12 hours on nine select Saturdays this spring.

The experience of attending one of these performances is not easily forgotten. The whole afternoon and evening highlight the communal endeavor of theater and tattoo it in the mind of the audience member. Whether for only a few hours or an entire day, the audience, actors and crew are all working together to suspend disbelief and engage themselves in the characters’ lives. The result is a theater event unlike any other I’ve ever attended.

Not to say that this style of performance isn’t archaic — an all-day performance of what essentially is one play has echoes of a church service in colonial New England or what one imagines theater was like in Ancient Greece. The closest many audience members today get to marathon theater is watching all the “Star Wars” films or an entire season of “24” at once. Though exciting, both lack the energy generated by sitting knee to knee with your fellow audience members while 44 actors take on more than 70 roles.

“The Coast of Utopia” may be anachronistic, but it is unabashedly so — 19th-century Russians discussing Western philosophy for over two hours at a stretch can hardly escape feeling dated. Yet the challenging subject matter is interwoven with accessible stories of love, infidelity and friendship that are enough to maintain an audience’s interest through the characters’ frequent musings on Hegel and Marx.

In addition, the technical aspects of the play seem purposefully designed to engage the audience member whose only prior marathon experience has occurred via DVD. The sets, while simple, combine with brilliant lighting design and special effects to paint breathtaking tableaux. The opening sequence, common to all three plays, features the main character, Alexander Herzen (O’Bryne), seated in a chair suspended above the stage. The sound of the ocean surf gently builds to a loud roar as large sheets of fabric begin to bellow under deep blue light. Suddenly, the chair descends toward the stage floor, while the ocean “waves” grow larger and larger. Alexander and his chair drop through a round hole in center stage, as the fabric, like water down a bathtub drain, appears to swirl as it disappears into the hole. With the water gone, the lights come up quickly on the play’s opening set, which is just as visually stunning. This is spectacle theater on a grand scale, but the result is undeniably enchanting.

The attention to the visual in “The Coast of Utopia” is by no means an attempt to detract from the talent on stage. With some of the most well-known American theater actors in the cast, Utopia creates something of a theater paradise.

The show also proffers an example that Yale’s student theater scene can take to heart. Stoppard’s trilogy proves that even the most obscure topics can be engaging with the right combination of plot and creative dialogue. This production also underscores the tremendous payoff that spending time and money on the technical aspects of the production can have (see the decision to use multiple puppets for Audrey II in this year’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors”). The marathon performance format proves that actors are durable creatures and can reach new heights under tremendous pressure. From the opening scene to the curtain-call 12 hours later, Hawke’s voice waned from velvet smooth to a coarse rasp. Regardless of whether it was the actor’s decision or the result of having performed for most of the day, it was brilliant.

Stoppard’s epic brilliantly places actors in a crucible for the audience’s viewing pleasure; maintaining a high level of energy and emotion while portraying multiple roles over an entire afternoon and evening is nothing short of grueling. The actors in this show are the true marathon runners — the audience members are merely water-cup-wielding fans along the sidewalk.

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