THEATER Bay Area audiences set off for The Coast of Utopia with Shotgun Players' production of Voyage, the first play in Tom Stoppard's celebrated 2002 trilogy based on the lives and careers of certain radical Russian émigrés in 19th century Europe. With artistic director Patrick Dooley at the helm of a large cast, the local launch of Stoppard's sweeping, pageant-like history play proves a smooth and articulate one, although so much is being set up in Voyage — which takes place inside Russia ahead of a departure to revolutionary Europe by one of its principal characters, future anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (an exuberantly confident Joe Salazar) — that the dramatic ball feels like it's just getting rolling. (Unfortunately, audiences will have to wait until 2014 before Shotgun has all three plays, including Shipwreck and Salvage, up and running in repertory).
Stoppard's play is both consistently witty and a bit glossy — in the sense of being both too sleek and too superficial to feel very deep. But it is not without a political point of its own. Here, the heady ideas and exchanges of real historical actors like Bakunin or literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Nick Medina) mingle with family tensions, romantic entanglements, careerism, and political intrigues, all amid some seismic shifting of history. That the ideas in play are often fodder for comedy underscores the discrepancy here between high ideals and lived experience — and the emphasis on a compromised but happy present over long-term struggle for a new society. The trilogy will make the deeply interesting figure of Alexander Herzen (played in Voyage by an able Patrick Jones) the charmingly sympathetic carrier of this not very satisfying liberal through line.
Funny the work comedy can do. A few days and two pretty long plane rides after seeing Voyage, I arrived in Moscow in time to see some real Russians pretending to be from Belarus, in a theater production that also leveraged comedy to explore urgent political themes. Two in Your House, which is among the 15 productions making up the Russia Case program of the 2012 Golden Mask theater festival, is smart, dead-pan absurdist theater based on actual events and documents stemming from the 2010 house arrest of Belarusian poet, activist, and presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev.
The action unfolds on a small stage in front of an audience crammed into a house with maybe 60 seats in all. Five actors recreate a situation in which Neklyaev (played with a gentle, almost serene philosophical air by a Russian actor who is himself a writer in real life) and his wife must share their small apartment with two KGB officers. The set is minimal, though a backdrop giving the diagram and dimensions of the actual flat neatly underscores both the fidelity to details and the suffocating invasion of intimate space suffered by the couple. Their vulnerability before two male strangers (and a third who rotates in during shift changes) comes across viscerally at the outset, but the tables are soon turned as Mrs. Neklyaev begins a fearless (and frankly hilarious) campaign of harassment to retake her home from the invaders — thus dissolving once and for all the illusory line between public and private spheres in the face of an invasive authoritarian regime.
Even without benefit of the simultaneous translation offered English speakers in the audience, the deft physical comedy and its Mrozek-like humor in the face of an outrageous as well as preposterous situation speaks volumes about political realities, the web of systemic violence that ultimately snares everyone, including the KGB agents (here played not unsympathetically as reluctant and increasingly miserable lackeys of the state). The comedy in this way comes as illuminating, subversive gloss on the hard facts of the case.
The company responsible for this unexpectedly wry bit of documentary theater is named Teatr.doc (pronounced "Theater Doc"). Led and financed by Elena Gremina, it's one of Moscow's scrappy independent theaters (as opposed to the state-subsidized repertory theaters employing full ensembles of actors and theater artists).
There are still several days of plays ahead at the time of this writing, but it's clear already that the independent theater has an important presence in this festival. Of the 15 productions selected for the 2012 Russia Case by curator and critic Elena Kovalskaya, the majority tends toward the experimental and more politically outspoken fare of the small independents. Three come from Teatr.doc; two more come from Moscow's Praktika Theatre, devoted exclusively to new drama. Other noteworthy names in the lineup include St. Petersburg's AKHE Engineering Theatre (two-time guests of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, who are currently collaborating with SF's own Nanos Operetta on a new work to premiere at SFIAF next year).
That evening after Two in Your House came an off-program production of famed director Dmitry Krymov's Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Boom. Krymov (whose In Paris, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, opens at the Berkeley Rep this month) offered up a spectacular, carnivalesque processional employing 80 actors in resplendent, sometimes wild costumes and a very long conveyor-belt stage to meditate on Chekhov and the impossible century since his death, as well as a kind of relentless attempt to grapple with or transcend both.
Moscow alone has something like 115 theaters, and the variety of work on display is predictably large. Only a handful of independent theaters take on overtly political subject matter, but these have a disproportionate influence today. The premiere of Two in Your House, for example, coincided with the recent massive street protests against Putin in the wake of elections overwhelmingly perceived as rigged. Its Belarusian subject matter thus chimed effortlessly with this political moment in Russia, especially for the younger 20-something Muscovites who are the bulk of the audiences for independent theater as well as the vast majority making up the recent street demonstrations.
THE COAST OF UTOPIA: VOYAGE
Through April 29
Wed-Thu, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 5pm, $20-$30
Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby, Berk.