Friday, May 04, 2007

Terror is the new Sexy: The Washington Blade meets PETA

I suppose it had to happen eventually: The Washington Blade, the gay newspaper of record in the DC metropolitan area, is now promoting terrorism -- indirectly, of course.

This week's "Out in DC" supplement (which is best described as a style section within a style section) features a fawning puff piece on Dan Mathews, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Matthews is gay, in case you didn't know, and has a new autobiography to prove it. More to the point, Mathews is blond, blue-eyed, trim and well-conditioned, with chiseled features and blow-dry hair. The Blade has conveniently published a photo of him in the buff, with the naughty bits obscured from view. (You'll see the same picture in every other gay newspaper touting Mathews's book tour.) Although Mathews says he's a vegan, he lacks the pasty skin and weirdly emaciated physique one usually observes among the protein-deprived.

In fact, for a guy who has spent the past few decades shilling for eco-terrorists, Mathews looks absolutely fabulous. Too bad we can't say the same for his employers. It's not just the charges of rampant animal cruelty, which PETA recently -- and successfully -- fought in North Carolina, or even the shocking revelation that in 2005 PETA killed nine-tenths of the animals entrusted to its loving care. According to the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom, PETA has had close financial dealings with both the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, two radical groups well-known for their violent attacks on real-estate developments and medical research. And in case you were hoping that a substantial gay presence would make PETA more sympathetic to gay and lesbian concerns, forget it. The president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, stated last year that "Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we'd be against it."

None of these inconvenient facts are included in the Blade article. Perhaps they should have been. After all, PETA has been widely lauded for blending activism with hedonism. Its strategy of "raunching up" extremist animal-liberation rhetoric has been smashingly successful among the Hollywood elite, even though it has probably siphoned donations away from more reputable cruelty-prevention groups like the SPCA. The Blade credits Mathews in particular with finding celebrities to appear in PETA's racy "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" ads. But his brand of radical chic doesn't look as sexy once you discover what he's really selling -- and I suspect that Washington Blade readers might have wanted to know a little more about it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Overwhelming: The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center Theater

Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, now playing through May 12 at New York’s Lincoln Center, is quite simply the best thing I have ever seen on a stage.

But before I praise this play to the high rafters, let me offer a friendly word of caution: Coast is a dramatic trilogy with a total running time of nearly eight hours, not counting intermissions. Although most of the action is decidedly landlocked (with a few notable exceptions), each episode -- Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage -- gains its title from a nautical event.

If that’s not intimidating enough, the play depicts the tempestuous lives of nineteenth-century Russian radicals. From a distance the subject matter may seem pretentious, but with renowned British playwright Tom Stoppard at the helm, it‘s relatively easy to understand. Stoppard tends to place his ideas in the context of familiar plots, and his tragic circle-of-friends story at the heart of Coast of Utopia is engrossing even if one knows nothing about this saga’s “three R’s” -- Russia, Romanticism and Revolution. (For audience members who would like to learn more about them, Lincoln Center has helpfully provided audience guides for each play, summarizing the action and explaining the context.)

Stoppard is probably best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a tragicomic look at Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the eyes of two secondary characters. In other plays, such as Travesties, Arcadia and The Invention of Love, Stoppard develops the basic idea of Rosencrantz even further, humanizing the history of Western civilization by examining its impact on misfits, exiles and minor “eyewitness” figures. It’s no surprise, then, that the central character of Coast of Utopia ultimately proves to be the half-German Alexander Herzen, perhaps the most obscure yet politically engaged of the Russian radicals, whose longstanding friendship with anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, combined with a deep ambivalence toward his mother country and his family, serves as the trilogy’s emotional core. Isaiah Berlin tried to awaken public interest in Herzen in Russian Thinkers, even proclaiming the man one of Russia’s few "moral preachers of genius," but so far to no avail.

In this Lincoln Center incarnation, the three parts of Coast of Utopia form the grandest, most ambitious drama to play on an American stage since the glory days of 1930s “public theater." With a cast of forty-four and more than eighty speaking parts, this production would be massive by any standard. (The cast of the 2002 London production was smaller by a third.) Yet fluid, ingenious direction from Jack O’Brien ensures that every moment of this trilogy is enthralling, delightful, and deeply heartfelt. Occasionally, as in the haunting vignette that introduces each play, the elaborate sequences in Shipwreck depicting France’s 1848 revolution, or the bizarre Karl Marx-meets-Music Man dream that opens Salvage, O’Brien’s staging rises to the level of poetry.

Leading Lincoln Center’s stellar ensemble is Brian F. O’Byrne as Herzen, who plays a relatively minor role in Voyage but emerges as the central character of both Shipwreck and Salvage. O’Byrne, who won a 2004 Tony in 2004 for Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (and was nominated the following year for Doubt), may be the only living American actor capable of the emotional, intellectual, physical and vocal demands of this enormous role. His booming baritone easily fills the thousand-seat Vivian Beaumont Theater -- no easy task, since most of this production is performed without amplification. (On days when all three parts of Coast are performed back-to-back, O’Byrne appears onstage for nearly five exhausting hours, all but shouting to the gallery the entire time.)

That said, Ethan Hawke -- best known for films like Before Sunrise -- gives O’Byrne a fair run for his money. Hawke endows his young Mikhail Bakunin with movie-star glamour (and, more slyly, more than a little movie-star narcissism), then ages convincingly into a bitter, unsympathetic bomb-thrower. Amy Irving successfully tackles multiple roles, as Bakunin’s flibbertigibbet mother in Voyage and a shocking bisexual temptress in Shipwreck. As author Ivan Turgenev, who may well serve as the artistic conscience of Coast, Jason Butler Harner gives an initially restrained performance that grows more intense and powerful as the trilogy progresses. (In the performances I saw of Voyage and Shipwreck, the character of Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, usually played by Billy Crudup, was handled by understudy Scott Parkinson. Parkinson acquitted himself admirably, even drawing spontaneous applause for a lengthy first-act monologue in Voyage.)

The Coast of Utopia is, among many other things, a play about how modern revolutions begin and why they usually fail. To that end, Stoppard peppers his dialogue with pithy observations on the frailty of human nature, even in the midst of his characters’ lengthy, pretentious monologues on art, politics and the ideal society. Of course, in Stoppard the emotional context and the motivation of a monologue outweigh its intellectual content: The result is counterpoint between what is spoken and what we sense should have been stated instead. In Coast, the characters are driven by that ever-reliable duo of hubris and self-deception, believing (at least initially) that they possess the intelligence and the philosophical theory to reshape existing human social and political arrangements to the benefit of all. As their hopes are shattered, Stoppard shows how each major character comes to terms -- or fails to come to terms -- with their human limitations.

Taken as a whole, The Coast of Utopia may well prove Stoppard’s masterpiece -- no small claim, given the quality of his work. The only question is how one ought to see it. Ideally, a theatergoer would view all three parts in a single day, back-to-back-to-back. To its credit, Lincoln Center has organized special all-day “marathon” performances of Coast with lunch and dinner breaks. Still, even a devoted theatergoer might find that spending nearly eight hours in the same seat, watching an eight-hour drama, would lead to deep-vein thrombosis instead of an aesthetic epiphany. The next-best option, then, would be to catch all three parts of Coast, in proper sequence, on consecutive nights. Again, Lincoln Center has made this option available for audiences who may not wish to “run the marathon,” as they put it. Audiences may also view a single episode of Coast, getting a taste of the work without delving into the entire thing -- in which case, the introductory chapter Voyage would prove the most satisfying. (Shipwreck, a domestic drama, feels like a middle chapter, while Salvage can seem pedantic to those who have yet to see the first two parts.)

I’m informed that no American theatrical company outside of New York is planning to stage Coast of Utopia -- and in all likelihood, no American theater outside of Lincoln Center has the financial, technical or artistic resources to do it. Audacious, ambitious, playful and wise, The Coast of Utopia reminds audiences why theater was invented in the first place. This one is definitely worth a special trip.

The Coast of Utopia: Part One -- Voyage. The Coast of Utopia: Part Two -- Shipwreck. The Coast of Utopia: Part Three -- Salvage. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Jack O’Brien. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Lincoln Center, New York City) through May 13. Tickets $65 - $100 for each individual performance, $195 - $300 to see the entire trilogy. For more information or to buy tickets, call Telecharge at (800) 432-7250, or visit

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