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Politics Is No Match for the Human Heart in Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck at Main Street Theater

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The setup:

Let's see, where were we? The last time we met Tom Stoppard's displaced 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, they were scattered across Europe looking for life's meaning in political upheavals soon to be (good news -- that production has been extended). Here, in the second part of his epic trilogy, Shipwreck, they find themselves right in the midst of turmoil: debating, critiquing literature, forging new friendships, and, most importantly, falling in and out of love, which is the most revolutionary act of all. Politics is no match for the human heart.

The execution:

Without so much as waving its own red banner, an affair can effect more lasting change than hordes at the barricades. This private life brings Stoppard's finely etched characters into the present with overwhelming force and spirit. Voyage, the first part, where we meet this circle of friends and their families, might be called the epic's head, and Shipwreck its heart. For all the disquisitions on serfdom, universal brotherhood, the waywardness of kings and the implacable censoriousness of Mother Russia, it's their personal stories that move us so.

Like the most skilled weaver, Stoppard interlaces his stories with clever time shifts and bends. People come and go quickly, some die offstage between scenes, some come back to life in memories fraught with emotion. Never again can anyone accuse Stoppard of being a cold fish. The intellectualism that is his natural style -- no playwright can set complicated philosophical arguments with such abundant wit and clarity -- is amply supplanted by his domestic scenes of simple love, anger, jealousy, betrayal, friendship. Autumnal Chekhov gives way to a more contemporary style. His characters are growing up.

Director Rebecca Udden keeps Stoppard's full plate in gentle motion, like ocean waves. (These and other rich sound effects, from designer Shawn St. John, neatly supply texture and amp up the drama.) While we miss the breathing room that the larger stage at Chelsea Market gave to Voyage, we're never more than arm's length away at Times Boulevard, and this intimacy reveals fresh insights. The cast is huge and impeccably smart from top to bottom. Standouts include: Joe Kirkendall (Alexander Herzen), Shannon Emerick (Natalie Herzen), Seán Patrick Judge (Turgenev), Guy Roberts (Bakunin), Joel Sandel (Belinsky), Ivy Castle (Emma Herwegh), Elissa Levitt (Maria Ogarev) and Sammy Rachleff (little Kolya).

The verdict:

Stoppard presents a rich, vibrant, historical panorama, keeping us constantly alert with shifting themes and subtle theatrical effects that build to a quiet, smashing climax. The play quivers with reverberations. This is contemporary drama without parallel. Next stop, Salvage.

Stoppard's deep, satisfying drama plays through March 11 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. Order tickets online at www.mainstreettheater.com or call 713-524-6706.

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