Rebecca Udden's Down-to-Earch 'Utopia: Grounded in Main Street Theater's Trademark Intimacy, the Artistic Directors Brings Tom Stoppard's Epic Trilogy to Houston

Article excerpt

"I LOVE STOPPARD," INTONES REBECCA GREENE Udden, with the sort of deep-voiced relish most people reserve for Swiss chocolates.

Over the course of her 36-year (and counting) career as founder and artistic director of Houston's Main Street Theater, Udden has earned the bona fides to support that assertion: Main Street has produced no fewer than 11 of Tom Stoppard's plays, staging both his non-canonical works and local premieres of popular scripts such as Arcadia. (When prodded about her favorite Stoppard production over the years, Udden notes, laughing, that she keeps returning to The Real Inspector Hound because it reminds her "how fundamentally absurd" the work of theatre artists can be.) Now Udden and her company--which holds a Small Professional Theater Equity contract and has a two-theatre combined seating capacity of 250--has scored the rights for the secondever American production of Stoppard's three-part, nine-hour masterwork The Coast of Utopia.

Udden's version of the epic--the first part of which opens Jan. 12, with the second two parts running in repertory in February and March--will have been preceded only by the celebrated (and star-studded) premiere at New York's Lincoln Center Theater in 2006. (Shotgun Players of Berkele), Calif., has also announced it will stage Voyage, the first part of the trilogy, in March.)

"It's the most ambitious thing we've ever done," Udden says with the knowing twinkle of a director driven by the risks she takes but experienced enough to know what colossal undertakings they can Udden recalls Main Street's staging of Kushner's Homebody/Kabul (not exactly a small play) in the theatre's 2006-07 season as a casting challenge on ethnically accurate grounds, but Utopia presents enormous from a numbers point of view. The trilogy--which follows a group of 19th-century Russian intelligentsia agitating for czarist overthrow and social revolution--requires 30 adult actors (count 'em if you can, as well as several child roles. Main Street's press materials boast the employment, all in all, of nearly 50 Houston artists.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On the practical side, it is simply the largest production, payroll-wise, to which Main Street has ever committed. But Udden and the company are embracing the considerable opportunity for their locally known theatre "to raise our regional profile" and to attract theatregoers from across Texas and the surrounding states. Udden expects the production to raise the play's profile among U.S. theatremakers, too. Given the timely resonance between its political and philosophical subject matter and current events such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street--and considering its large cast, full of challenging roles for men and women--Udden wonders aloud "why universities with serious acting programs" in particular are not doing the play. "Our production has the potential to show them that it is a possible play, that they should be doing it," she believes.

Utopia's hurdles, some would argue, go beyond logistics. Yes, the Lincoln Center production was generally reviewed well, but several critics across the country pointed out its many--how does one put it delicately?-- dramaturgical issues. Stoppard himself sounds a defensive note in his introduction to the second edition of the script. All but calling the play obtuse, he writes, "I had to read a lot of books about Russians and radicalism, and if your purpose is information you must read the same books." Why take on such a lumbering giant? Even Udden remarks, "I saw the Lincoln Center production, and by the third play I was tired of the actors walking on stage and declaiming things."

Yet she cites this very frustration as inspiration for her closer reading of the script. "To me, this is really a play about a few friends arguing passionately about ideas that mean everything to them," Udden asserts. "We are eager to show that the plays can be just as effective when produced on an intimate scale as they are in Lincoln Center. …