Jesse Jarnow

the coast of utopia (so far)

Two-thirds through Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy at Lincoln Center (thanks, G’ma!!). Some things I have loved, so far:

o The frayed scrim that drops almost to the stage, reflecting off the shiny floor to create a fairly literal illusion of coastline (which promptly disappears during the rising dystopian tides of part II: Shipwreck).

o Stoppardian zingers like “the whole Army’s obsessed with playing at soldiers” — spoken by deserting military student/future anarchist Michael Bakunin. I thought of it frequently as I passed through TSA checkpoints en route home from Minneapolis earlier this week.

o The woman across the aisle from us in the loge who brought her shaggy, craggy old black dog to the theater, who dozed peaceably under her seat throughout the performance and was quieter than many audience members (myself included) sniffling with mild late-winter colds.

o The ridiculously clever conceit Stoppard uses to establish that, while the play is English, the characters are speaking Russian. The first line, spoken at a dinner table scene on an idyllic estate north of Moscow: “Speaking of which — Liubov, say something in English for the Baron.” Later, the “English” dialogue is spoken with a thick Russian accent.

o The manner in which (as always) Stoppard is able to wrench fabulous emotion from potentially (and, probably, actually) pretentious plotlines — in this case, the entwined lives of privileged Russian radicals in the post-Decembrist/pre-Marxist period. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, played by Billy Crudup:

I’m sick of utopias. I’m tired of hearing about them. I’d trade the lot for one practical difference that owes nothing to anybody’s ideal society, one commonsensical action that puts right an injury to one person. Do you know what I like to do best when I’m at home? — watch them build the railway station in St. Petersburg. My heart lifts to see the tracks going down. In a year or two, friends and families, lovers, letters, will be speeding to Moscow and back. Life will be altered. The poetry of practical gesture. Something unknown to literary criticism!

Can’t wait to see part III next week.


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