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Will Atlanta ever be ready for Utopia?

If you're buying presents for theater people, you may want to consider putting Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia under their tree. Not only is the trilogy a big, bold theatrical event, but the Grove Press edition of the text may be the only way Atlantans can enjoy it.

Performed in London in 2002 and yet to reach this side of the Atlantic, Utopia feels like Stoppard taking up a gauntlet thrown down by Tony Kushner with Angels in America. As HBO's new miniseries reminds us, Angels isn't just about AIDS, but it also encompasses the turn of the millennium, the end of the Cold War and the sheer thrill of ideas.

In Utopia's three plays -- Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage -- Stoppard revisits the 19th-century Russian thinkers whose triumphs and shortfalls set the stage for the 20th century's ideological struggle. Their example implicitly provides a set of values as we brace for the 21st century.

Stoppard displays his usual cerebral showmanship in Utopia, but also infuses his Russian characters with some of Chekhov's melancholy and Tolstoy's view of history. Karl Marx appears on the margins, but the plays emphasize such lesser-known figures as anarchist Michael Bakunin and reformist Alexander Herzen, following them over three decades as they crisscross Europe. My favorite, Shipwreck, finds parallel failures between Europe's mid-century revolutions and the attempts at Free Love within Herzen's social circle.

They'd be fascinating to see on an Atlanta stage -- but how? The artistic directors I asked say Atlanta's audiences are up to the plays' intellectual challenge, but Utopia demands all but insurmountable requirements in time and money. Actors typically prove the greatest expense of any play, and Utopia's three works have huge casts. Showing them together would require commandeering, say, the Alliance Hertz Stage for its entire season, or the Georgia Shakespeare Festival for a full summer repertory. Utopia is sexier than you'd guess from the subject matter, but it doesn't match Angels in America as required viewing in the current zeitgeist.

Still, while reading the plays, it's fun to mentally cast the roles -- the underused Charles Horton would be a fine Herzen, and other local actors like Chris Ensweiler, Steve Coulter and Brik Berkes come to mind. Heidi Cline would make a good director. Her affinity for Chekhov and comfort with the complexities of musical comedies would suit a theoretical production.

But reading the plays proves no substitute for seeing them in the flesh. Utopia has so many big ideas and subtle relationships that you can't appreciate the drama -- and even much of the comedy -- without seeing actors bring it to life. Maybe it's not the best gift after all.

For a back-up present, you could give the original cast soundtrack of Avenue Q. Broadway's "Sesame Street" parody from earlier this year offers bright, "educational" tunes about grown-up problems, such as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is for Porn" ("Why do you think the Net was born? Porn, porn, porn!"). Even if you don't know the show -- or even care about theater -- the recording provides plenty of laughs.

Still, you listen to Avenue Q and feel that an Atlanta playhouse (especially Dad's Garage or Center for Puppetry Arts) could have come up with the idea first. You read The Coast of Utopia and feel that Atlanta theater is ready -- at least artistically -- to take up its challenge.


Dad's Garage's annual short play festival 8 1/2 x 11, running Jan. 23-Feb. 21, gets an injection of rock 'n' roll spirit when David J, former bassist of Bauhaus and lead singer of Love and Rockets, provides the short play "Anarchy in the Gold Street Wimpy." The piece involves a punk rocker ranting about how the music has sold out from its roots with the Sex Pistols. David J is recording original music for the soundtrack.

Contributions this year from writers like David J and Urinetown-co-creator Greg Kotis illustrate how 8 1/2 x 11's evening of 11-minute plays has changed its mission from a local showcase to a national festival.

Joy to the World

Despite having canceled the plays of its 25th season, the New Jomandi will keep a tradition alive by presenting its perennial holiday show Black Nativity. The Langston Hughes musical will not be a full production, however, but a concert-style fundraiser featuring such Jomandi alumni as Margo Moorer and Arnie Epps. It plays Dec. 17 and Dec. 19-21 at Clark Atlanta University's Davage Auditorium. $20. 404-876-6346.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.


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