Stop reading! Put down the Houston Press right now — this review can wait — and quickly call Main Street Theater, or go to its Web site, and order tickets to The Coast of Utopia, Part One: Voyage. Do not miss this extraordinary event. (While you're at it, reserve seats for the other two plays in this trilogy by Tom Stoppard. Shipwreck begins February 10; Salvage, February 24.) You'll soar afterward from the sheer exhilaration of the production's magic and majesty. This is what theater is all about.
There's no other playwright currently inventing plays with such scope, imagination and theatricality. Leave it to Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, Shakespeare in Love, The Invention of Love) to set this three-part epic in mid-19th century Russia, when its greatest philosophers, anarchists and revolutionaries were unformed young men still wet behind their theories. Perhaps Russophiles of a certain age and education might have a passing acquaintance with his main characters: anarchist Michael Bakunin (Guy Roberts), literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Joel Sandel) and political activist Alexander Herzen (Joe Kirkendall). Only literary lion Ivan Turgenev (Seán Patrick Judge) is audience-friendly enough to be universally recognized.
Don't be put off. With Stoppard's unfailing mastery of good old-fashioned play-making, this is no dry work, nor are footnotes needed for explanation or enjoyment. Yes, heady philosophical theories of Hegel and Kant are debated and fought over — this wouldn't be a Stoppard play without some kind of intellectual gamesmanship — but woven throughout, subtly strengthening each scene, is the mundane world of everyday life and love. These dreamers might have their heads in the clouds, but they're also fixed to earth, whether they want to be or not.
The Coast of Utopia, Part One: Voyage
Through January 29. Chelsea Market, 4617Montrose. 713-524-6706. $26-$40.
Nobility of mind co-exists with messy emotion: Affairs of the heart start and stop without regard to world affairs. Characters meet, separate and then meet again later; or, oftentimes, as Stoppard loves to shift time on us, they meet at an earlier date, which clarifies a scene or action we've seen or, better still, some scene yet to come. The impressionistic, short scenes swirl in a grand mix, with projected surtitles of dates and places keeping us from getting too lost. When the connections are made, lightning strikes. Voyage is electrified.
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Constructed like the best puzzle ever, Voyage is quintessential Stoppard. Pieces of revelation come at us when he diverts our attention elsewhere. He makes us work for our enjoyment, but what elation. And what words. No contemporary playwright loves wordplay with such unstoppable glee; he transforms the act of talking into the art of talking. Stylish with visual flair, he's theater's best poet.
With its impressive cast, Main Street's production sparkles with discovery. The epic is quieted under Rebecca Green Udden's sensitive direction, but there's intimate drama in the sound of a crisp silk dress being arranged on a chaise, or the painterly way Michael drapes himself on the wooden bench, being fed strawberries by his devoted sister Tatiana (Lindsay Ehrhardt) under the dappled spring light. The lighting throughout is beautifully conjured by designer Eric Marsh. It takes a scene or three before we lose ourselves in the play and get used to its particular rhythms and cross-currents, but once there we're totally enthralled. Set designer Jodi Bobrovsky's background panels of empty picture frames, though attractive, miss the mood, but the rich costumes from Margaret Crowley and the expressive sound design by Shawn St. John convey a world that all too soon will be swept aside.
The cast is large, but everyone meshes. Particularly good: Guy Roberts's spoiled son with his undefined passions discarded about him like lint from his pockets; Joel Sandel's uncertain critic finding his way through the dizzying maze of new thoughts — you can see the thoughts take hold of him; Rutherford Cravens's czar-like patriarch of family estate Premukhino, benign, autocratic and doomed; Jennifer Dean's steadfast yet longing-for-love Liubov; and Justin O'Brien's lost-in-the stars passionate Stankevich, whose passions hobble, not free, him.
With its emphasis on the Bakunin family, Voyage drips with that unmistakable autumnal quality of Chekhov, of time passing, of irrevocable change and loss. Change rumbles throughout, inevitable. New, modern thinking has swept in from Europe. The young are on the march. In Voyage, the old world resides at Premukhino. Stoppard makes us care for the past as he prepares us for the shock of the new. What will happen next? Shipwreck looms. Don't miss it, nor this Voyage of pure theater magic.