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Phoenix Theatre Heads to Russia for One-Day Reading of The Coast of Utopia

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Jenna Papke has long loved the work of Tom Stoppard -- her first time as a producer was presenting the playwright's Arcadia -- and was intrigued by his three-part examination of the pre-revolutionary era in 19th-century Russia, The Coast of Utopia.

"There was no way I could produce the full thing," Papke says. Then, as her job at the new Phoenix Theatre took shape, she realized that while a full production wasn't in the cards, a staged reading of the trilogy certainly was.

"There are a lot of opportunities when you have your own space," she says.

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There will be staged readings of the three plays throughout the day Saturday.

The trilogy takes place in Russia between 1833 and 1866. The plays debuted in 2002 in London, before finding their way to Broadway a few years later. They earned a number of awards, including a Tony, for that run.

"It's a great historical epic, but also about a family," Papke says. "On paper, none of Stoppard's plays should work, but they are intimate within all of this high-concept stuff."

That high concept can entail exploring the action of Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) or examining the intellectual life in a home during two wildly different time periods (Arcadia).

A company of more than 20 actors will take on the various roles in the plays, which take place over the course of 33 years. Some basic information, like the different dates of the scenes, will be projected onstage.

"I think with the cast I have it will go pretty well. They'll be encouraged to have some playfulness and physicality with scripts in hand. There are quite a few fantastically beautiful monologues," Papke says.

The readings also mark the start of the Phoenix Theatre's first full year. The venue opened this fall in the former Brave New Workshop location in Uptown. The first stage of renovations has been completed, and meetings are being held for the second stage.

As you walk into the venue, you can see some of the changes -- the box office has been moved, for example -- and there have been plenty of important improvements, including work on the roof and the heating and air conditioning system.

"My goal is for us to be thought of as a venue for artists. In St. Paul there is Bedlam, but there is no place in Minneapolis that is centrally located," Papke says.

Seeing the trilogy in one day, "you can trace the storylines. You have a sense of falling into this world and these characters. We are hoping to bring in food and have plenty to drink, and offer hard-core people a chance to be in Russia for the whole day," Papke says.

IF YOU GO:

The Coast of Utopia Voyage (noon), Shipwreck (3:30 p.m.), Salvage (7 p.m.), Saturday. Phoenix Theatre, 2605 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis Free, donations welcome For information, call 612-377-2285 or visit online.