I drove to Shotgun Players’ cozy little theater, the Ashby Stage, in Berkeley, twice last week. The play I saw on Saturday afternoon—Tom Stoppard’s Voyage—was so interesting, and the production so well done, that I could easily have watched it a second time. But no, I’d been there earlier in the week to see a different kind of play, one that only Shotgun, I think, would have added to the mix. It was The Divine Game, a re-creation, performed by actor John Mercer, of one of Vladimir Nabokov’s famed lectures at Cornell University, where he taught in the 1950s, until Lolita freed him to write fulltime.
This program was part of the Shotgun Cabaret, a series of performances from, as Shotgun explains, “some of the great underworld performers of the Bay Area’s delicious subculture: poets, acrobats, aerialists, drag queens, dancers, filmmakers, vaudevillians, and queer superstars, to name a few.” It’s a neat way for the company to get other kinds of material out there without having to develop it. The Nabokov evening came from producer Joe Christiano’s First Person Singular, a cool literary remix series, which has had many works performed on the Ashby Stage, and elsewhere. Coincidentally, the next Cabaret act is a one-person show of stories written and performed by Mercer, Swearing in English.
You might well ask how compelling a lecture, even as presented by such smart and lively theater groups, could be. I’ll tell you: Mercer did a stellar job of conveying Nabokov’s passion and wit in engaging with the divine game of art—in particular, here, with Russian literature. The man was surely one of the most inspired lecturers who ever lived; now I want to read those lectures for myself, to underline all the parts I underscored mentally as Mercer talked. And, of course, I want to reread the writers he discussed. In fact, the play had guest appearances by Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, reading from their work and reacting to Nabokov’s comments (Nabokov was not a fan of Dostoyevsky’s), which was fun. But for the most part, the play was simply an inspired talk by a learned, engaged, and truly thoughtful reader. Maybe you had to have been an English major to love every minute of it, but it tells you something about Berkeley audiences that the three Monday-night performances of The Divine Game sold out.
As for the Stoppard play, it is the first in his esteemed 2002 trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. Under founding artistic director Patrick Dooley, Shotgun has long been interested in the nexus of art and politics. (Indeed, for 21 years, the company’s core values have included “social relevance and community engagement.”) Though other theater companies have presented Stoppard’s work, Shotgun has a real affinity for the British playwright’s thinking and concerns, and it shows in the acting, direction (by Dooley), and production of this complex, involving play.
Voyage, which Shotgun first presented last year, centers on Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian revolutionary and philosopher considered the founder of the theory of anarchism. Here, in Part I of the trilogy, we meet Bakunin as a young man, in 1833, on his father’s estate of “500 souls” at Premukhino, northwest of Moscow. Like many young people, Bakunin and his idealistic friends are earnestly pondering how to live their lives, as well as how to change their backward, despotic country, debating over Kant and Hegel and trying to publish writings that won’t run afoul of the government’s heavy-handed censorship. At Premukhino (in Act I) and in Moscow (Act II), we meet Bakunin’s friends and his four equally passionate sisters, who necessarily see little ahead for themselves beyond marriage and children. Each woman is so enticing in her own way, and so well portrayed, it’s a pity we can’t meet them again in the other plays.
Shotgun is reprising Voyage as it premieres Shipwreck, the trilogy’s second play. Here, it’s a decade later and the friends are far less idealistic, at least until they get to Paris in time for “the beautiful days” of 1848, when King Louis Philippe is overthrown and elections for a national assembly are held, with disappointing results. I could write more about the plot, but I haven’t yet seen Shipwreck. If it is anything like the audacious, exciting, and utterly engrossing Voyage, I don’t want to miss it.