Art and politics are bedfellows in Shotgun Player's presentation of Salvage, the third play in Tom Stoppard's Tony Award-winning trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. Brave in scope, anchored by the human desire to escape ideological oppression, the production grapples with the cost of obtaining individual and corporate freedom.
In a major coup for director Patrick Dooley and the scrappy Berkeley-based theater company he founded in 1992, rights to all three productions were secured. Together, they run seven hours and explore the contradictory and colorful landscape of pre-revolution Russia between 1833 and 1866. Shotgun has presented parts I and II, Voyage and Shipwreck, in previous seasons, and this year completes the final installment. Individual presentations and marathon days offer opportunities to experience the trilogy in parts, or as a whole.
The first battle for viewers who've missed Salvage's predecessors is whether of not to learn the backstory. Pre-show introductions and program notes attempt the herculean task of filling in audiences about Alexander Herzen (Patrick Kelly Jones), the protagonist around whom swirls Utopia's magnitudes of personal, philosophical, and political themes. A cursory investigation establishes the groundwork: Young artists, writers, and revolutionaries — and their families — unite and are torn asunder in a cyclical pattern of inspiration followed by betrayal and disillusionment.
Straddling a span of 15 years and moving from London to other locations in England and finally, to Geneva, Salvage tells the story of exile. Herzen has lost his wife, son, mother, and Russia, his homeland. He's surrounded by collaborators, friends, and his remaining children, whom Stoppard employs to expand the play's ambitious historical scope and its intimate, secondary themes of sacrifice and suspicion.
Tragically, Herzen has lost his dream of sparking a Russian revolution — until an opportunity to create and write The Bell, a free press intended to be smuggled into Russia, presents itself.
Much of Salvage is devoted to survival: Will The Bell claim the hearts of a new generation of Russians? Who and how much must be surrendered for revolutionaries to achieve a political cause? Is terror and vitriol the only way to achieve change, or will printed words — and patience — win the war against oppression?
The answers are less precious than the asking, Dooley's production seems to emphasize. In vignetted, episodic scenes, often spliced with dreamlike sequences that create a residual feeling of a fitful sleep, vigorous debate is the anchor.
Missing from Salvage are grand passages like one delivered by Herzen in Shipwreck, the second play. "Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day," he says, responding to the loss of his son, Kolya, but insisting on temporal transcendence. "It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late."
The less universal, more tightly earthbound scope of the script does hint at Stoppard's tunneling tendency as a dramatist. Occasionally, burrowing too deeply results in a confusing number of minor characters and subplots one wishes Dooley had trimmed. Like an insect with too many legs, it's possible to get tripped up by the tangential story lines.
Fortunately, nuanced and spirited performances from several members of the cast, most notably Megan Trout (Natasha Tuchkov) and Sam Misner (Nicholas Ogarev), lend clarity and contrast to the complexity and Jones' rather solid, suppressed performance. A frame-like set, with sliding steel panels and maneuverable furniture, would have been well-served by simplification. Despite efforts to spin and "dance" the various elements into or out of place, the movement proves distracting and threatens to overtake the play's substantial, cerebral action.