More! More! Five hours into The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard has us so caught up in his epic trilogy of 19th-century Russia on the brink of revolution that the characters participating in the historical events seem like old friends. The thought of eventually having to part company with Brian F. O' Byrne's Alexander Herzen, Billy Crudup's Vissarion Belinsky, Ethan Hawke's Michael Bakunin, and all the other romantic poets and visionary thinkers (for whom, we are reminded, the word "intelligentsia" was originally coined) is too painful to contemplate.
In Shipwreck, the second play in the cycle, the intellectual firebrands introduced in Voyage are given more scope to present the philosophical principles of their revolutionary politics, and the stage crackles with the fiery intensity of their debates. Young, idealistic, and footloose in Paris in the feverish days leading up to the 1848 overthrow of the monarchy, they argue for egalitarian government and an independent press with the same passion they champion free love and progressive art forms. But most of all, they agonize about what it means to be Russian in European intellectual circles where they are viewed as barbarians.
The nationalist Konstantin Aksakov (Scott Parkinson) argues that, "we can still develop in a Russian way, without socialism or capitalism, without a bourgeoisie, and with our own culture unpolluted by the Renaissance." Speaking in opposition, the author Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner ) contends that, "the only thing that'll save Russia is Western culture transmitted by people like us." It is left to Herzen to speak the unspeakable truth that the Russian intelligentsia haven't a clue what comes next: "Where are we off to? Who's got the map?"
Stoppard keeps this political discourse from becoming dry - and in fact, makes it quite juicy - by observing how the abstract ideology holds up when the ideologues apply it to their own lives. Social freedom is a thrilling concept to the young Russians who encounter it in the cafes and literary salons of Paris. But when Herzen's wife, Natalie (played with great charm and intellectual exuberance by Jennifer Ehle), in her eagerness to become an emancipated woman, has an affair with a German romantic poet (the dashing David Harbour), the results are devastating. While director Jack O' Brien stages such human dramas in warm, intimate settings, the production maintains its sweeping perspective on the historical events that will climax (with "Salvage") in Imperial Russia. Again making full use of the vast Beaumont stage, he keeps drawing the eye back from its immediate gaze - on, say, a crystal chandelier hanging in a Paris salon, or the tall columns of the Place de la Concorde - to the silent ranks of Russian serfs waiting in the woods for their turn to come.