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Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia Opens at Main Street Theater

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Main Street Theater Executive Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden says she loves the work of playwright Sir Tom Stoppard -- "his ideas and his language and the way he's able to articulate complicated ideas in such eloquent ways."

Undaunted by the fact that Stoppard's Tony Award-winning trilogy The Coast of Utopia is a lengthy, sprawling piece of work, calling for a large cast, Udden decided the Houston theater audience deserved to see it and Main Street could tackle it as a special project in 2012. It hasn't been performed in the United States since 2006, when it was premiered at the Lincoln Center.

"Right now it's a monument. It's this thing that can only be done by giant theaters with boatloads of money. And I wanted to see if it could be done by the rest of the world. Because I think it's wonderful material and more people need to see it," Udden said.

Main Street Theater has made a practice of taking on Stoppard's (Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, The Real Thing, Travesties) works, and Udden said she had no problem attracting actors to the expansive project, even though everyone knew right from the start that they'd be rehearsing right through their Christmas vacations to have it ready in time for its January 12 opening night. "We had five-hour rehearsals at night and these are people who have day jobs," said Udden, adding that despite this, there was no complaining, no whining. "Everyone is just so thrilled to be a part of it."

Part One: Voyage, is set in Russia starting in 1833. Its main characters, who are coming of age during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, include an anarchist, a literary critic, the literary giant Ivan Turgenev and a revolutionary thinker. All are all trying to sort through the upcoming political and social change. Part II: Shipwreck and Part III: Salvage, which will be performed later in the year, shift locations to Paris and then London.

"In this play, in Voyage, the intelligentsia, the young Russian thinkers are grappling with such earth-changing, such huge ideas that are going to make major changes in the generations after them, and yet they're still people like us. They fall in love. They have their problems. They connect with each other. They fall out with each other. I just love that," Udden said.

The biggest difficulty for Main Street (or any other theater) is the size of the cast it calls for. Initially some of the Alley Theatre company actors expressed interest, Udden said, but the Main Street rehearsals conflicted with the Alley's production of A Christmas Carol, and it was a no-go. In the end, Udden said, she was very happy with the cast she did get, showing off "the incredible depth" of the area's artistic pool.

"We were certainly able to cast it, but we have to pay all these people, so that's an issue. Fortunately, our contract with the actors' union isn't so huge that we couldn't allocate the resources for a sort of one-time special thing," Udden said. "Obviously, we couldn't do it year after year, but with a lot of careful planning and a little extra fund-raising we were able to meet the financial challenge if people come to see it. If no one comes to see it, we'll be in deep trouble."

But, she said, "Judging from the interest we've already had, I don't think that's going to be a problem."

Actually, Udden said, Main Street is better equipped than most theaters to handle The Coast of Utopia's demands. "Since our production aesthetic is so stripped down from necessity, it's not particularly any more difficult than anything else except that it's just a lot of people."

But there were some stage directions that had to be discarded, she said.

"There's a scene for instance where the character Belinsky, he's very poor, he lives in very mean conditions. The stage directions call for the scene to start with him wrapping himself in newspaper to keep warm. In doing this he's reading about the death of [Alexander] Pushkin. This is fine if you're on a big stage. If you're in an intimate setting, well, first of all you have to have a newspaper that looks like an 1830s newspaper because people can see it, and then your actor is standing on stage with newspaper stuck in his clothes. And he doesn't have time between that scene and the next scene to actually remove the newspaper, and for the next scene he's got newspaper sticking out of his clothes and it's spring."

And there were other parts that called for some extra effort.

"There were some plot points that were very challenging. A character comes in on ice skates and she asks another character to help her take the skates off. This is very important. So you have to have skates that clamp on to shoes that someone can walk across the stage floor on and they have to look real. They have to be real. There's a skate key. I remember that but most people ... So what did we do before the Internet? So one night at rehearsal before we tried to figure out a way to fake this we just got on the Internet and, oh yeah, we can get these skates."

The first part of the Houston production is running about 2-1/2 hours including intermission, she said. That compares to the Lincoln Center performance she saw clocking in at three hours. "That's because they had just wonderful stagecraft, but it takes time to move things on and off stage," she explained.

It's the story line Udden and her troupe are concentrating on. "Anyone interested in current events should be interested in this, certainly with things going on in the Arab world and Occupy Wall Street, what people, what mankind, does when he reaches a point in his public life that he finds to be unsustainable. How do people approach making big changes in the way they live?"

Main Street Theater's production of Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia opens January 12 with Part I: Voyage and runs through January 29 at MST, 2540 Times Boulevard. For ticket information call 713-524-6706 or go to www.mainstreettheater.com.

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