If you haven’t seen “Voyage,” the first of Tom Stoppard’s trilogy titled “The Coast of Utopia,” not to worry. Yes, many of the true-life characters in “Voyage” (set in Russia, 1883 to 1844) reappear in the second part of the trilogy, “Shipwreck” (set first in Russia and then in a restive Western Europe from 1846 to 1852).
But there are so many characters altogether in each that it takes some time to figure out who’s who in any case.
Shotgun Players, now presenting both plays, includes detailed information in the program to help you sort out all that.
“Voyage” is a rerun of Shotgun’s production from last year, with some of the same actors reappearing. Having seen and been impressed by “Voyage” then, I opted for just “Shipwreck” this time. Equally impressive, it works well as a stand-alone piece — multitudes of characters and long, complex discussions, so characteristic of the wordy playwright, notwithstanding.
The central figure in “Shipwreck” is “father of socialism” Alexander Herzen (an assured, nuanced portrayal by Patrick Kelly Jones). He and friends from his radical student days in Moscow, as portrayed in “Voyage,” have fled restrictive, czar-ruled Russia. Alexander’s wife, Natalie (an intriguing, emotionally expressive Caitlyn Louchard), has strong, progressive ideas of her own.
In “Shipwreck’s” 10 scenes, the group of friends — who comprise a Russian expat intelligentsia — gather and disperse in and around Paris during the 1848 overthrow of King Louis Philippe, witnessing the collapse of the second empire that, disappointingly, followed. They argue hotheadedly about everything: revolution, literature (one of the characters is the novelist Turgenev), free love and ideals in general, including the concept of a utopia.
If the first act is a bit of a slog, Stoppard’s writing, aided by the considerable skills of the actors, crystallizes vividly in the second act.
That’s when poignant human interactions take precedence over theoretical discussions. Relationships form and reform, lovers betray each other, death inevitably occurs.
Amid the impassioned intellectual quarrels, all within the context of a changing world, “Shipwreck” contains equal parts comedy and heartbreak, both beautifully realized under Patrick Dooley’s direction.
In fact, Dooley demonstrates just how to present a large-cast, multi-scene play in a small playing area: with a stirring classical score (Matt Stines, sound design), simple set changes carried out by the actors in character (elegant set design by Nina Ball) and such graceful stage movement that crowd scenes never feel cluttered.