Tom Stoppard’s Shipwreck, the second of the Coast of Utopia trilogy, makes clear where his allegiance lies among the Russian intelligentsia. It isn’t the compelling Michael Bakunin, the focus of Voyage, the first of the plays, or critic Vissarion Belinsky or youthful author Ivan Turgenev. No, it’s the thoughtful, upright Alexander Herzen who urges moderation, rejects grand dreams, and focuses on achievable goals.
The reasonableness of Herzen makes Shipwreck a less compelling play than the opening play in the trilogy, Voyage, where Bakunin and Belinsky took center stage. Both plays are now showing in a wonderful Shotgun Players production, directed by Patrick Dooley. But while Shipwreck has fewer verbal fireworks than Voyage, it does draw out much more of the humanity and personal lives of the central characters.
Most of Shipwreck takes place in Paris and Nice, where the intellectuals escape from the censorship of Tsarist Russia, and breath in the heady air of the 1848 revolution. But they are outsiders, observers, rather than actors. Ironically, the French writers they idolize have been all but forgotten by history, while these Russians remain touchstones of intellectual history.
In the midst of the ferment, the private struggles of Herzen and his family take center stage. The transformation of Bakunin’s innocent sister into Herzen’s exuberant and eventually promiscuous wife, wonderfully played by Caitlyn Louchard, makes graphic the grey zone occupied by women in these intellectual circles. Alexander Herzen himself, played by the excellent Patrick Kelly Jones, is a well-meaning innocent in both politics and personal life, until family tragedy awakens him to reality.
While Stoppard focuses on and celebrates Herzen, the impulsive, intellectually mercurial Bakunin (Joseph Salazar), always scrounging money from friends, brings welcome spirit to the play. Karl Marx has a walk-on appearance, which provides a classic Stoppardian frisson.
You probably didn’t know that you care about the ebb and flow of mid-nineteenth century Russian intellectuals. But you should hurry to the Ashby Stage to see Shipwreck (and Voyage, if you missed it first time around), and you’ll find that, yes, you do care.
‘Shipwreck’ and ‘Voyage’ are playing at the Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, until April 28. Tickets are available from the Shotgun Players website.
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