The plays, which follow a group of 19th-century Russian radicals from their university days onward, cover illicit love, death, and mental and physical deterioration, including lessons learned and relearned, dreams dreamed and destroyed, and more.
But most of all, the intellectual men argue passionately about their beloved motherland and its oppressed proletariat.
“Salvage” finds them, in middle age, in exile in London with radicals from other European countries.
The central character is the aristocrat Alexander Herzen (Patrick Kelly Jones), a grieving widower and writer-editor of the muckraking newspaper The Bell, which is smuggled back into Russia. (Most characters are true historical figures of the era, including novelist Ivan Turgenev and a brief appearance by Karl Marx, with bits of text taken from their actual writings.)
Many of the 13 scenes, which are juicy and succinct, are set in Herzen’s various London homes, where he lives with his three children and a stern governess (Caitlyn Louchard).
When his drunken comrade Nicholas Ogarev (Sam Misner) and his neurotic wife, Natasha (Megan Trout), arrive, a ménage à trois eventually develops.
Political events occur, including the much-hoped-for death of Czar Nicholas in 1855 and the subsequent, equally anticipated but ultimately disillusioning freeing of the serfs.
Poignantly, though, the characters in this talky (at times, it’s true, overly didactic), often funny and engaging drama will not see a successful revolution in their lifetime.
And as one fiery young radical finally tells the peace-minded Herzen, “Forget that you were a great man — you’re a dead man.”
Director Patrick Dooley creates an enthralling world on Shotgun’s tiny stage, with accoutrements and an invigorating musical score (Matt Stines, sound design). The actors move seamlessly through celebratory party scenes, intense dialogue and moments of quiet, solitary brooding.
The set changes, handled gracefully by costumed servants, provide welcome breathers for the audience.
Best of all, there is Stoppard’s gift for smoothly interweaving the personal and the political and a huge cast that fully realizes his multidimensional characters. Under Dooley’s fine-tuned, insightful direction, every gesture and detail is precise and revealing, every emotion feels palpable and every word seems spoken from the deepest of personal conviction.
All three “Coast of Utopia” plays — “Voyage” and “Shipwreck,” as well as “Salvage” — are running in repertory this month, and trilogy marathons are on April 5 and 26.
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and some Thursdays, 8 p.m. some Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 27
Tickets: $20 to $30
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org