Theater Fans Endure, Enjoy at 'Utopia' Marathon

Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia is winding up its run in New York this month. Some theater-goers are watching all three of the plays about the Russian Revolution in one day, spending 12 hours in the theater.

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Some theater audiences are experiencing an extraordinary event this season. For a handful of Saturdays at New York's Lincoln Center, all three plays in Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy "The Coast of Utopia" are running back to back. The curtain for part one goes up at 11:00 AM, part three ends 12 hours later.

We wondered what type of person is drawn to a marathon performance about 19th century Russian intellectuals and sent Tom Vitale to find out.

TOM VITALE: Saturday morning, 20 minutes before show time, in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The room is buzzing as the audience wait to see part one of the "The Coast of Utopia." Before the day is done, this audience will sit through all three plays of Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy about the Russian philosophers and writers who planted the seeds of socialism.

Tickets to the marathon are $300 a piece and the 1050-seat theater is completely sold out. Bill Koffman(ph), a retired advertising man, has been preparing for three months.

Mr. BILL KOFFMAN: Literally, I've been reading all the philosophers, the writers, Herzen, Pushkin, (unintelligible), all of them. I'm really excited, so I can't wait.

VITALE: Fourteen-year-old Ira Reckanati(ph) is also familiar with the play's historical characters. He talked his grandmother Gina into coming with him.

Mr. IRA RECKANATI: I know quite a bit about Russian philosophy and things. I only thought it would be interesting. I can sit through opera, how bad is extra four hours?

Unidentified Woman: But I'm just curious to see how well we'll hold out, and I believe it will. Because it's - I understand it's very well done, and so I'm looking forward, actually.

VITALE: Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and Michael Reed run the Gammage Theater in Tempe, Arizona. They flew in to see the marathon.

Ms. COLLEEN JENNINGS-ROGGENSACK (Executive Director, Arizona State University Public Events): We planned on it, we were excited about it, we've followed it in The New York Times, in Variety. We've read the reviews. This is a must-see.

Mr. MICHAEL REED (Cultural Events Director, Gammage Auditorium): And I went to the School of American Ballet, so New York is coming home. And I saw "Nicholas Nicholby" many years ago and so this is sort of continuing that, something you have to experience.

Ms. JENNINGS-ROGGENSACK: Yeah. I was going to say along those same lines, I sat through the "Mahabharata" in obstructed view seats for nine hours and loved every second, brilliant minute of it.

VITALE: They brought their friend, Fran McPheron(ph), who says he's here representing the attention deficit disorder set.

Mr. FRAN MCPHERON: Just in the unlikely event this is not as spectacular as we think it's going to be, they will have tales to tell of their ADD friend from Houston who has come along and is a real champ.

Ms. JENNINGS-ROGGENSACK: Tell him your plan, though, of how you're looking at it.

Mr. MCFERRIN: Oh, yes. This is not three three-hour plays. This is six one-hour-and-12-minute vignettes. I can do anything for an hour and 12 minutes with coffee in between.

VITALE: A few minutes later, the crowd streams into the theater. Part one, "Voyage," starts promptly at 11 AM.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: The trilogy spans 30 years of Russian history as seen through the eyes of the circle of intellectuals around the first man to call himself a socialist, Alexander Herzen. Part one begins in 1834, outside Moscow, as the writers and revolutionaries formulate their theories.

The second play, "Shipwreck," follows the group to Paris and the failed revolution there in 1848. And part three, "Salvage," finds the philosophers in exile in London celebrating the triumph of their ideas with the 1861 emancipation of the Serbs. Throughout the trilogy, the characters talk and talk.

(Soundbite of play, "The Coast of Utopia")

Mr. BRIAN F. O'BYRNE (Actor): (As Alexander Herzen): My friend, (unintelligible). I give you a toast now. From liberty of each for the equality of all.

Unidentified Group: For the quality of all.

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (as Mikhail Bakunin): Huh?

Mr. O'BYRNE: (As Alexander Herzen) What does that mean? It doesn't mean anything at all.

VITALE: In this scene from "Salvage," the anarchist Bakunin, played by Ethan Hawke, debates with Herzen, played by Brian F. O'Byrne.

(Soundbite of play, "The Coast of Utopia")

Mr. HAWKE: (As Mikhail Bakunin) The funfare of your pronouncements, you've made yourself a European reputation by a kind of revolutionary word music from which it is impossible to extract an ounce of meaning. Let aloneā€¦

VITALE: In "The Coast of the Utopia," 41 actors are featured in 70 roles. The 12-hour marathon includes two one-a-half-hour meal breaks. The critics are mixed about the experience. Ben Brantley of the New York Times saw the marathon five years ago when it premiered at London's National Theater.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Theater Critic, The New York Times): I enjoyed it immensely. There are certain theater marathon or arts marathon experiences where you feel both virtuous and masochistic, you know, some saga of creation in Scandinavian enacted by a stick puppet that last 12 hours. This isn't like that. For me, this is like, oh, we have the flu and you want to settle in with Anna Karenina

VITALE: Brantley's colleague at the Times, critic Charles Isherwood, had a different reaction.

Mr. CHARLES ISHERWOOD (Theater Critic, The New York Times): And I emerged reeling at about, I think 10:30 or 11:00 at night. I think the play is far to diffuse. He has so many ideas, so many characters, and so much history in one play that he really can't effectively dramatize any of them.

VITALE: No matter how one feels about "The Coast of Utopia," actor Ethan Hawke says the marathon is an experience.

Mr. HAWKE: You will certainly remember that day. You know, the many days go forgotten, you know, what did I do - I bought some nails, and I took my clothes to the cleaners, and talked on the phone, took my kids to school or something. That day you will remember if you see it.

VITALE: At the final curtain at 10:45 PM, the audience in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre stands and cheered the actors for two minutes. Afterwards in the lobby, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and her friends are exuberant.

Ms. JENNINGS-ROGGENSACK: It was not only a lesson in great theatrics, it was a history lesson and a lesson about the human condition in the world we live in. It was absolutely amazing and people must see it this way.

Mr. REED: I feel like I saw theater history. I don't know that you absolutely have to see it like this, although I think it was very helpful.

VITALE: But Bill Gifhart(ph) from New Jersey perhaps best summed up the lasting value of the experience.

So you saw it?

Mr. BILL GIFHART: Yeah, but it does have snob appeal.

VITALE: The Saturday marathon performance of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" will run through May 5th at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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