First off, a self-assessment quiz to determine if you’re likely to enjoy The Village Repertory’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Woolfe Street Playhouse.
1) Are you a Downton Abbey diehard? In other words, can you confidently say that the prospect of listening to all those densely British accents does not make you want to bang your skull against the nearest wall?
2) Have you read (and actually enjoyed) A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, her tale of two couples in two time periods, lustily following their poetical and academic passions? No cheating here. Having subjected yourself to the crappy movie version doesn’t count.
3) Of the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory, do you sometimes think: “I wish it were a little more science-y. Quantum mechanics is plenty fun by itself. They really don’t need that much farcical sitcom stuff.”
4) Were you remarking just the other day, “I finally got around to reading Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. I can hardly wait for the follow-up book.”
If none of the above made you feel utterly light-headed or intimidated, there’s a very good chance you’ll not only enjoy Arcadia but find plenty to discuss about it. Because Arcadia is, in fact, entirely that good and Village Rep’s production is a wonderful opportunity to get to know it. There are, however, some caveats.
Arcadia is one of Tom Stoppard’s richest, most studied plays. Given the English playwright’s well-earned reputation for densely philosophical works, that’s saying something. However, we arrive at a theater expecting (and deserving) an entertainment, not a straight lecture series. Does Arcadia challenge what Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot likes to call “the little grey cells?” Oh yeah, you betcha. Still, the play also delivers on the emotional level, too. You just have to keep your head in check to appreciate that.
Arcadia opens in 1809 and alternates between a two-year span of that time period and events in the present day. The two separate casts share the set, but only share the stage at the very end of the play. In both the 19th century story and the present, we are mostly concerned with Thomasina Coverly (Kaitlin Lieck),15 years old when we meet her being tutored by Septimus Hodge (Young Stowe). Thomasina is not merely too clever by half, but sincerely inquisitive about all of the world around her. Right off the bat, she demands to know what “carnal embrace” means and refuses to allow her tutor’s embarrassment to rob her of an accurate answer even though it’s his carnal embrace of another house guest we’re talking about.
In the present day, we meet the current Coverly family, still in possession of their stately country home Sidley Hall, and still a household in something of an uproar of intellectual and lascivious obsessions.
Valentine Coverly (Bill Harris) is a present-day mathematician counting the estate’s variable grouse population and doing plenty of his own grousing and brooding over his work. Hannah Jarvis (Becca Anderson), his more or less fiancée and a best-selling author, is poring over the old family journals, pursuing her own inquiries about the Romantic era by studying Lady Croom’s (Christina Leidel) overhaul of the estate’s gardens back in Thomasina’s day. This extreme garden makeover had been conducted by Richard Noakes (Robbie Thomas) who envisioned a landscape architecture entirely purged of its former classical glory. This grotesque manhandling of the landscape is proof to Hannah that Romanticism was rubbish, or as she puts it “the Gothic novel expressed in landscape. Everything but vampires.” Another researcher (the house is full of them!) shows up — scholar and man about town Bernard Nightingale (Brian Turner) who’s itching to prove that the poet Lord Byron stayed at Sidley Hall back in the day and that the events of that time prompted his Lordship’s hasty trip to the Continent. If Nightingale can prove this, he will have set Byron scholarship on its head and vastly augmented his own fortunes. The fact that he savagely reviewed Hannah’s book only spices up the twists and turns that follow his arrival.
Across time, there remain a handful of constants in Arcadia. The Coverly family. Sidley Hall. And the fanatical pursuit of reasoned inquiry. Oh, and boinking. There’s a good deal of that (tastefully off-stage), and it inevitably complicates everything in this orderly universe. Which is rather the point. In Thomasina’s day, the world was seen as a Newtonian clockwork of predictability. In the present day, the scientific world view is less satisfyingly cut and dried. It’s Thomasina’s unexpected genius that bridges those two worlds. She’s willing to acknowledge the unpredictable machinations of the human element, and Lieck’s performance lovingly brings Thomasina to life: gentle, profoundly inquisitive, undaunted.
Stoppard’s characters, then and now, are sincere misfits. Obsessed. Often horny. Mostly lovable. They try to make facts fit their pet theories. Stoppard’s people find themselves weighed downed by the self-created gravity of their narrow pursuits. Thomasina is glorious in her openness and, as a result, the only one who manages to reach escape velocity, to find her joy in real discovery simply by not taking herself too seriously. And her attitude serves as the exemplar of how the audience might best profit from what, on the face of it, is an extraordinarily brainy play. Let go of it. That’s my suggestion. Don’t even try to follow to the letter all the scientific, literary and artistic discussions. Focus, as Thomasina does, on the heart of the matter. On the idea that we can weigh ourselves down with worry and frustration niggling away at increasingly narrow perspectives. Let the chatter wash over and revel in these splendid performances.
Becca Anderson’s Hannah and Brian Turner’s Nightingale command the stage as rivals and colleagues. Lieck’s Thomasina and Stowe’s Septimus Hodge batting ideas and flirtations between them are a treat to watch. Brad Leon gives Ezra Chater exactly the cringe-inducing egomania his character demands. And as Lady Croom, the only more or less sensible character of the bunch, Christina Leidel is precisely the sort of commanding figure you want in a busy Lady trying to run a household with all these resident geeks. The only sour note on the production is that the actor’s lightning fast dialogue is sometimes difficult to hear particularly at the back of the house. In those moments, Arcadia loses a non-trivial amount of its force and tempo. Not a deal breaker, but still.
Keely Enright has done Charleston theatergoers a service by challenging us with her production of Arcadia. She and her cast deserve full marks for this and you deserve to share it with them. Refuse to be intimidated. Allow yourself to be delighted instead.