Arcadia: An Exciting and Romantic Decline from Thinking to Feeling.
Walking into a Tom Stoppard play (The Real Thing, Rock ‘n’ Roll), always sends me into an excited state, thrilled to be challenged and inspired to do some pre-theatre studying. His words tend to weave a wild web that makes one feel enlightened, educated, and cared for. He makes me want to read up on topics and ideas so that I may fully understand what many of his intellectual characters are referring to and talking about. It was definitely the case with The Coast of Utopia, that magnificent masterpiece that played the Lincoln Center in three parts back in 2006. The more well read you were from the extensive suggested reading list provided in the program, the more you could take in all the layers and textures he had created. And the easier it was to follow the narrative. With Arcadia, his 1993 ode to the exploration of literal evidence and intellectual truth, we are given a short list of theories and personas to acquaint ourselves. This reading up is to help us better comprehend the discussions that take place between the numerous poets, scientists, and intellectuals, both modern and from the early 1800’s that occupy the sitting room of Sidley Park. The list includes such concepts as Newtonian, Relativity, Deterministic Universe, and the Second law of Thermodynamics, and people like Lord Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, Pierre de Fermat, and the famous English landscape designer, “Capability” Brown. Only in a Stoppard play would all these names and theories come up in casual conversation.
Arcadia is set in an English country house in Derbyshire, and takes place is both the early 1800’s and the present day. The piece follows the intellectual activities and studies of modern scholars exploring the house juxtaposed with the people who lived in Sidley Park in 1806, but don’t get overwhelmed by the time jumping construct, the big conceptual theories, and historical names tossed about. Ultimately this stunningly beautiful and funny play that delves into the world of history and science, literature and sex, and most importantly, the relationship between past and present, order and disorder, and the balance of certainty and uncertainty is a joy to behold. Knowing these concepts well, or even just slightly, may enhance the moment, but it is in the relationships that Stoppard really thrives. His words and scenarios may feel heady and erudite, but in many ways it comes down to passion, for whatever it is you are passionate about, both in the past and present.
Directed with clarity and deftness by Cheryl Faraone (Co-Artistic Director and Producing Director, PTP/NYC), there are numerous topics expanded upon for our enlightenment and pleasure. The idea of Romanticism is debated against Classicism when the wonderful Megan Byrne (PR’s The Hatmaker’s Wife) as Lady Croom passionately discusses the evolution of the classic English garden with her landscape architect, Richard Noakes (Sebastian LaPointe). They consider moving from the orderly construct of the Classic style to the more rugged naturalism and Gothic wildness of the Romantic. It’s fascinating stuff, but its really in the engagement and exchanges between these wondrous and opinionated humans that the true nature of human engagement and the art of the piece can be found.
One of the central relationships that span this incredible piece is that of tutor and student. The two has tremendous chemistry and connection, and while it is a thrill to watch their dance together, it also plays with and parallels the ideas of chaos versus order. Andrew Willian Smith (Arena Stage’s A Streetcar Named Desire) portrayal of the thoughtful and charming tutor, Septimus Hodge is wonderfully layered and unique. His character turns out to have a surprisingly huge role in the modern scholars’ exploration in ways that are both transparent and oblique. Smith, playing the sexually charged tutor and friend of Lord Byron (an unseen guest in the house, a fact that becomes increasingly important), seems to struggle with the quick dialogue and changes of energy but he does shine quite beautifully in his emotional connections. Caitlin Duffy (PTP’s Good) blossoms in the beautifully written character of the brilliant young student, Thomasina Coverly, amazingly bright with ideas about mathematics, nature and physics that surpass her age and time. She tends to challenge quite impressively the proposed theories of the Newtonian vision of the universe taught by Septimus, posing questions that undercut it to the glee and surprise of her tutor. So much intellect is thrown around between these two, it’s hard to keep up, but the connection and interpersonal respect and adoration is palpable and thoroughly thrilling.
On the other end of the spectrum is the wonderfully silly poet, Ezra Chater, portrayed by Jonathan Tidle (Mint’s Welcome to Our City), with the same meticulous wit he showered on Pity in History, the other PTP/NYC production currently playing in repertory with Arcadia at Atlantic Stage 2 theater (Steven Dykes is also here having some fun in two secondary parts after being so brilliant in the main role in Pity in History). Tidle plants the vanity and ridiculousness of Ezra Chater in solid ground. He foolishly prances around, making his unique place in the discussions of the twentieth center academics all the more hilarious. The back and forth between the 1800’s and the present day scholar activity playfully shows how clues left by the past can be interpreted, both rightly and wrongly, in the present by both scholars and researchers. It’s a genius little game Stoppard plays with us, teasing and winking at us throughout.
Being utilized by both time periods, the set by Mark Evancho (with lighting design by Hallie Zieselman, lovely costume design by Mira Weikley, and sound design by Cormac Bluestone) is simple, basically just an old but cluttered table surrounded by chairs. In a way it’s a perfect metaphor of the chaos verses order dichotomy presented, as the table accumulates all the objects of study that would seem a mass of disorder but seen in the context of the play holds a certain level of hidden order and depth of meaning. The scholar and writer, Hannah Jarvis, meticulously portrayed with wit and solidness by Stephanie Janssen (Mike Nichols’ Death of a Salesman) and the pompous literature professor, Bernard Nightingale, perfectly played by Alex Draper (MTC’s Rose’s Dilemma) have converged on this country house to expand on the ideas and theories that invigorate and inspire them. Both marvelous and exciting to watch, the two play out their passion in thought and intelligence in banter. She is investigating landscape history, with a particular interest in discovering more information about a hermit who once lived on the grounds. Why this is of interest to her is beyond my comprehension, but she is invested in her study and we eagerly support her passion. He has come to the country house to research a mysterious chapter in the life of the great British Romantic poet, Lord Byron. He has a particular theory that involves some scandalous activities from that same time period in the 1800’s. Layered on top is the two scholars’ questionable, but exciting opinion of each other, but the work of finding out the truth of what happened during Thomasina’s time with her tutor takes precedence. With help from the distant relatives of the Coverly family that we are lucky enough to be engaged with in the other scenes, Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology, played with geeky charm by Jackson Prince, his sister, the witty and flirty Chloe Coverly (Eliza Renner), and Gus Coverly (Manny Duran, who plays double duty as the 1812 predecessor, Augustus Coverly) all try to help with the discover of truth and understanding that is buried within the piles of books and papers that litter that solid old table. The three are lively and playful, thoroughly intoxicating to spend time with, and fascinating to connect to what makes their engines roar: “Grouse”, “Sex”, “Literature”, they each state in succession, although the last is said by Hannah, naturally. Forever the non-romantic, she spurns all the advances aimed in her direction.
The magnificent final scene layers the actions of both 1812 and the present concurrently, dissolving the interactions into some sweet engagements, but also chaos and the collapse of social order and intimacy. Hannah exclaims at one point, “It’s what happened to the Enlightenment, isn’t it? A century of intellectual rigor turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius…The decline from thinking to feeling.” As the scene and the character’s interactions disrupt the structured plan, possibly because of sex, as Chloe quite comically wants to believe, or of assumptions made from mistruths and misreadings, it is possible to still see the deeper connections and order of all things significant. Arcadia, which I had seen in 2011 when the play returned to Broadway in a revival that gifted us with a cast including Margaret Colin as Lady Croom, Billy Crudup as Bernard Nightingale (Crudup played Septimus in the original 1995 Broadway production), and the magnificent Raul Esparza as Valentine, is a much better play than I remembered. Funnier and more touching than I remember. PTP/NYC has given it a wit and humor that I had forgotten existed. It’s a wildly fun night of complex theatre, aching to educated but in the end, Arcadia just entertains. It is a fully enjoyable Stoppard giving us the decline from thought to the feelings of sweetness and joy.