Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Starstruck syndrome

I visited New York City for the first time during my freshman year in college. My classmates who had grown up going there all the time couldn't believe it. What could I say? Central Pennsylvania was the closest I'd ever lived to it, having grown up in Maryland, Virginia and South Korea.

The first visit or two were based largely in Times Square, and with each successive visit I've tried to expand my experience of the city into new neighborhoods and different concert/theatre venues. I've been there enough times now that I don't look like a greenhorn trying to navigate the subways and streets, but there's still the Broadway glint and this feeling of centrality (being at the heart of America's, and perhaps the world's, cultural and arts scene) that threatens to widen my eyes a little every time I go back.

I'll be there a lot this semester -- interning for NewMusicBox, a webzine associated with American Music Center. Several days every week. I'll chase away that wide-eyed feeling yet.

The same feeling can often accompany meeting celebrities, or seeing them in unexpected places. Several of my friends saw Dr. Ruth Westheimer in NYC; all of us had a close encounter of the comedic kind with Jon Stewart (he was in the room and addressed everyone in our group, but no one "met" him or shook his hand or anything); we all saw actor Ethan Hawke on stage in Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia." What follows is the review I wrote of "Voyage," the first play in Stoppard's trilogy, for the third workshop of the immersion.

NOTE: Review edited, in light of anonymous comment. The female *roles* in "Voyage" are not reprised in the second play, but all of the actresses will appear in different roles in "Shipwreck."

History doesn’t move to a martial drumbeat in “Voyage,” the first play in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia,” currently playing at Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Instead, the tale of 19th-century Russian thinkers bubbles with humor and energy that outweigh some uneven acting.

These real-life historical figures, led by Vissarion Belinsky and Michael Bakunin, lament the provinciality of their homeland, and they counter this isolation by reading philosophy and blithely questioning reality. Stoppard imparts a light touch to cerebral matters, and Jack O’Brien’s direction steers the actors through breezy discussions of heavy topics.

As the youths make strides toward self-discovery, the old guard, represented by Michael’s father Alexander and his rural estate Premukhino, are forced to make way. Richard Easton plays Alexander with graceful wisdom, as he slowly realizes how the world has passed him by while he was tsar over his own small domain.

As Michael, Ethan Hawke is too loud and harsh, and his wide, over-broad performance diminished the puerile joy of Michael’s discovery of new worldviews. With each new philosophical breakthrough, Michael remarks, “Now I know where I was going wrong.” Hawke stands in need of a similar revelation.

Billy Crudup’s performance as Vissarion, though, redeems the notion of Hollywood actors on the dramatic stage. Crudup doesn’t mistake lungpower for expressiveness. At first awkwardly mousy, he shows Vissarion’s passion for writing and dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime in short, believable bursts.

The play feels male-dominated, despite the multiplicity of female roles. Alexander’s four daughters seem to serve only as plot devices, as sources of distraction to the men’s high-minded pursuits. Among the women in “Voyage,” the mother Varvara, played with poise with Amy Irving, has the greatest presence.

Visible through scrims behind the beautifully spare Victorian-era sets, shabby crowds of serfs (some of them mannequins) represent the revolution to come. In a play driven by words and by characters discovering their power, the on-looking laborers stand out by their silence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Immense ignorance — Re: comments on the women of Voyage. Do some research, chump.