Memories and human curiosity are ethereal things. Our memories later buoy us as we retain them, let them go, or morph them into what we want them to be.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a wise, witty and wonderfully multi-disciplinary tribute all things human–the lust for other humans, the quest for knowledge, the yearning to leave a legacy, and the tendency to follow trends at the risk of destroying the existing character of spaces. Stoppard wallows in complex emotional and academic topics as diverse as poetry, mathematics, sex, and European landscaping. He then lays that all into a plot traveling across time, between the early 1800s and the present.
But you’ll be at home because Arcadia is played on the cozy in-the-round stage at Little Lake Theatre. All the action takes place in Sidley Park, the English country house in Derbyshire, wrapped in greenery and flowing water, much like the region’s idyllic and venerable 70-year-old summer company. It’s summer theater, so get comfy with beverages in the house and order snacks and dessert served at intermission. Audiences seem to overlook the theatre’s quirky audience layout since the setting is so intimate and the ticket prices quite affordable. Little Lake beckons you to take the long ride from the city for a show, especially a 20th classic like Arcadia or A Streetcar Named Desire this season.
Artistic Director Jena Oberg is a savvy and thoughtful director as she moves the actors effectively within the play and the stage. Arcadia is very well-suited for the round configuration, but the space’s acoustics hinder the need to hear every word. A cast of 12, valiantly tackles Stoppard’s language, British accents, and period dress.
When a script is so lush (like Shakespeare, Stoppard, and Miller), it is a delightful advantage to have read the script before the performance, for there are lots to absorb in Arcadia. Do your homework or assume you’ll miss a few of the many ideas, witticisms, or revelations flying as the actors continuously move in the circular space for just over two hours.
Homework is indeed what appears to open the play in 1809, when Thomasina (Mairead Roddy), an apparent child looks up from her book at ask her tutor “What is ‘carnal embrace’ ?”. Thomasina is gifted, witty and driven to achieve. Her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Bill Lyon) must field her wildest questions, like “Do you think God is a Newtonian?”
In the present–in the same room–we meet some academics who are determined to reveal the history and perhaps secrets of the house, now owned by nerdy descendant Valentine Coverly (Arjun Kumar).
Also present are another intriguing brainy “couple”–resident historian and researcher Hannah Jarvis (Mary Meyer) and a competitive academic, the boisterous Bernard Nightingale (Art DeConciliis). Bernard shows up to share that he’s learned legendary romantic poet Lord Byron may have spent time at the estate. Nightingale’s race to publish and lecture about his Byronic scoop brings on a pompous lecture that DeConillis delivers with delightful bombast at the top of Act II.
Estates like Sidley Park were transformed by architect Richard Noakes (Rick Bryant). Their idyllic gardens with rolling hills and contrived pleasant views became dramatic man-made Gothic scenarios. Perfectly placed sheep on hills were replaced by spooky shadows. An intentionally lopsided hermitage is later occupied by an actual hermit, so we wonder who.
While Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom (Stacey Rosleck) and her brother Captain Brice (John Herrmann) are disgusted by the plans, they allow Noakes to execute them for the sake of upper-class fashion. Not surprisingly another poet, Ezra Chater (Ryan Frank), is a regular at the house. When he calls Hodge out for having an affair with his wife, Lyon’s charming portrayal reinforces how the witty Hodge flatters his way out of a duel.
Meanwhile, Roddy’s beautifully precocious Thomasina ponders the relationship of science to the emotional plane not considered by Sir Isaac Newton. Her considerations initially drive the play’s exploration of the realms of what we now consider STEM disciplines, balancing the concepts like a possible “Law of Attraction” with the famed Fermat’s Last Theorem. Hodge sets Thomasina on a quest for the proof that would fulfill that famous mathematical puzzle. On the other hand, Thomasina urges Septimus to explain human attraction and the facts of life. So their classroom banter shines in as Roddy and Lyon subtly convey their blossoming romantic and intellectual attraction.
Stoppard peppers the plot with more contrasting characters who add to the logistics and even “romantic” mix. In the 1800s, there’s butler Jellaby (Jeff Johnson) and Thomasina’s brother Augustus (Max Andrae). Doubled as Gus Coverly, a descendant, the actor appears to truly time travel between the two periods. In the present, Chloe Coverly, Valentine’s sister (Carly DeCock) is almost immediately infatuated with Bernard.
Valentine, who fortunately understands Thomasina’s mathematical musings, ironically sums up everyone’s journey with: “It’s the best possible time to be alive when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
Thomasina and her tutor are at the heart of the house and Arcadia. We see their mutual affection grow as she ages from age 13 to 17 during the play. Their performances stand out as well they should. Roddy captures the smart and capable essence of this young and tragic heroine. Lyon is charming and affable, maneuvering Septimus’ professional and romantic positions while astutely dealing with his student’s surprising ideas and questions.
At the play’s end, the pair moves from classroom to a closing waltz that is both bittersweet and welcome. In the future, where a period costume party is starting, Hannah uncharacteristically agrees to dance with Gus, the only character who does not speak. So the ending is appropriately sweet and silent as these four intriguing people move toward futures full of unexpected inevitabilities.
Arcadia is on stage at Little Lake Theatre through June 16 with performances Thurs.-Sat. at 8 pm and one remaining matinee on Sun., June 10 at 2 pm. Tickets are $12-19, making an outing to Little Lake an affordable option for families with the option for beverages and varied snacks and desserts served at intermission.
Categories: Archived Reviews