Thursday, May 2, 2013

Epic Plays, Small Theater: "Coast of Utopia" at Shotgun Players

While reading this profile of Blanka Zizka, artistic director of Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, I was most struck by the section that described Zizka's production of the Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love.
Though the play had a successful run in London, no theater in New York took it up. "People kept thinking that Invention of Love was dry as toast," says New York actor Martin Rayner, who portrayed the elder [A. E.] Houseman. "Nobody wanted to touch it in New York. Blanka took it and made it this vibrant thing."
It would become the highest-grossing show in Wilma history, and it prompted Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater -- who had passed on the play because he thought it too difficult and complicated -- to drive to Philly to see it. Not long after the lights went down, Bishop remembers, "Suddenly the play, which had made no sense to me in London, made total sense to me now. I don't honestly know how. The design was much simpler. The theater was smaller. It wasn't that the actors were better than the British actors. They were clearer. They had an emotional life."
The reason this passage struck me is because Bishop's experience seeing The Invention of Love at the Wilma mirrors what I've been telling people about the experience of seeing Stoppard's plays Voyage and Shipwreck (the first two parts of his Coast of Utopia trilogy) at Shotgun Players. The Wilma Theater has 300 seats; Ashby Stage, where Shotgun performs, has 150. I feel like 125 to 300 seats is really the ideal size for a theater: large enough to make you feel like part of an important communal experience, but small enough to still feel intimate.

And maybe that intimacy is especially important when staging one of Stoppard's challenging and cerebral plays. At least, I connected far more with Shotgun's production of Voyage, last year, than I did when I saw the play in its New York premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre in 2006.

In New York, I think there were something like 60 people in the cast, including famous faces like Ethan Hawke and Jennifer Ehle. The production was lavish, sparing no expense; it opened with an elaborate effect of ocean waves swirling and spiraling around Brian F. O'Byrne (who played the trilogy's protagonist, Alexander Herzen). But, aside from Billy Crudup's brilliant performance as Vissarion Belinsky -- he spoke some of Stoppard's most complex monologues as if he was actually coming up with the words on the spot -- I wasn't really able to connect with the play. The bigness, the lavishness, the constant emphasis on "we are doing something epic and highbrow," overpowered the story. My friend Lexi, who went with me to the show, thought that the opening special effect was the best part of the whole thing. But special effects should not be the reason that you go see a Stoppard play.

The Coast of Utopia features much discussion of intellectual topics, which can make it seem dense and confusing. But it also bears a Chekhovian influence -- there is poignant human drama amidst all of the storms and streams of talk. That element of it, though, got swallowed up by the massive Lincoln Center production. But in Shotgun Players' 150-seat house, the epic grandeur and the human intimacy of the play are balanced. Shotgun may have only 20 cast members instead of 60 (and face it, 20 actors is still a freakin' huge cast). Their set is bare-bones, their costumes are serviceable but perhaps not 100% historically accurate. But the play is clearer. It has an emotional life.

I wanted to love Voyage when I saw it in New York, because I love Stoppard and I love big intelligent plays... and, I guess, I respected that production, but I didn't love it. (Billy Crudup excepted.) It didn't even bother me that I had to miss seeing the other two parts of the trilogy in New York when I left to go study abroad.

Nowadays, I have immense respect for Shotgun for daring to tackle this epic trilogy in their mid-size East Bay venue. Moreover, I am connecting with what they're putting onstage -- getting caught up in the characters' emotional predicaments as well as their intellectual jousting.You can bet that I'm already looking forward to Salvage, the conclusion of the trilogy, which they'll produce next season. In the meantime, Voyage and Shipwreck are playing at Shotgun Players through the end of this weekend (May 5).

Image: Joseph Salazar as Mikhail Bakunin, Patrick Kelly Jones as Alexander Herzen. Photo by Pak Han.

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