Main Street Theater Has Outdone Itself with Coast of Utopia: Salvage

The setup:

By the final scene of the third installment of Tom Stoppard's magnificently rich triptych of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, Coast of Utopia: Salvage, our hero, Alexander Herzen (Joe Kirkendall), grizzled and now living in exile in Geneva, has been branded as dead by the new guard, who mock his zeal and misguided, old-fashioned ideals. Herzen's fervor, however, is still ablaze. He dreams of worlds yet to be. Passion and sparks fly out of him. "Art and the summer lightning of personal happiness" will console the world, not more bloodshed. It's one of Stoppard's most fragrant phrases.

With him, the once firebrand and hothead Bakunin (Guy Roberts) snores contentedly, fat as a Swiss cow. Fellow patriot and dearest friend Ogarev (Kregg Dailey), sick and gouty, has removed his sock and rubs his foot. Dreams of utopia give way, inevitably, not to the next in line, not even to the strongest, but to the ordinary stuff of living. History trips on the mundane as it zigzags toward its destiny.

The execution:

Profound philosophical and political dissertations swirl through Stoppard's epic, but they're no match for ordinary emotions such as love and loyalty, trust and confidence, or a sore foot, that define these friends. Fight for change, Herzen instructs his young son early in the play, don't stay here, sail toward the farthest shore even though there is no probable landfall. Sail on, keep going.

The galleon of Salvage journeys on, full-rigged and sails billowing, its wonders prodigious. Stoppard delights in distilling dry politics into exciting discourse; he paints even drier 19th-century European history into tremendously moving personal portraits. He's a crafty stage magician: a quick discussion of a dead child's glove turns a grieving father into an illicit lover; a gunshot is not the disaster we fear but comedy relief; plot reversals happen between scenes.

Stoppard takes the action in chronological order in this third installment, no doubling up time as in the other two plays. Logic takes over -- this is Herzen's play, after all, and he is Stoppard's sober, wise hero. Joe Kirkendall is nothing less than magnificent in the role. With his sculpted head and expressive, large hands, pungent voice and virile presence, he's the natural leader of this fervent band of intellectual revolutionaries, clarifying the most complex arguments, which can be dense as Shakespeare. Through Kirkendall's ardently rich interpretation, Herzen becomes the most decent of the intelligentsia, a beloved family man, a committed revolutionary. He's fully there.

Kirkendall's surrounded by the most impeccable cast. Director Rebecca Greene Udden's sharp eye catches the world in intimate gestures, side glances, expressive music and sound effects (Shawn W. St. John), and etched lighting (Eric L. Marsh). Great causes are condensed into the shape of a woman's bustle (Margaret Crowley) or an exquisitely delivered comic line like, "I'm a firm believer in flannel," from Shannon Emerick's precise German governess Malwida; or the excitable bombast of Guy Robert's Bakunin, who never met a revolution he didn't grub money for; or the polished, knowing embrace of Seán Patrick Judge's Turgenev, who remains impartial; or Jessica Boone's free-love Natasha, who's crushed from so much liberty; or Herzen's children, played so scrumptiously childlike by Celestina Gonzalez, Clara Marsh and Jonathan Steiger.

The execution:

Salvage is full of passionate characters in service to a passionate playwright who is, as is his majestic trilogy, unparalleled. Main Street Theater has outdone itself. This is theater of the highest order.

If you missed our reviews of part one and two, find them here and here.

If you need a complete Russian/Stoppard fix, how about taking in the entire three-part Coast of Utopia in one marathon day? That's a lot of blinis, caviar and Russian history, but this epic will not be launched again in Houston any time soon. March 18. Voyage at 11 a.m., Shipwreck at 3 p.m.; Salvage at 8 p.m. $36-$40. Coast of Utopia: Salvage runs through March 11 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. Tickets are $10-$30.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover