Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Into the woods with Tom Stoppard

Sir Tom Stoppard in thermodynamic repose.
I do love Arcadia; I've loved it ever since I read it, before I'd ever seen it.  To me, it's Tom Stoppard's best play - and certainly one of the classics of the twentieth century - even if it's not his most original, and even if I'm not really prepared to defend its achievement against such possible rivals as Travesties or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The "trouble" with Arcadia, of course, is that it's so synthetic, and its organizing structure so brazenly borrowed from A.S. Byatt's Possession (almost as compensation, you sometimes think, the playwright offers a Stoppard-like antagonist to a Byatt-like scholar right in the middle of the script), while many of its debates, as Boston Lowbrow's Bryce Lambert points out, are stolen from James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science.  But even if by borrowed means, Stoppard conjures in Arcadia an elaborate entertainment (indeed, an old-fashioned play of ideas) that perfectly balances his frisky wit with a mournful awareness of life's terrible vicissitudes - as well as breezy discussions of not only poetry, landscape architecture, and the Romantic period, but also chaos theory, fractal geometry, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (with Fermat's Last Theorem thrown in as a kind of aperitif).

Stoppard's conceit is that even as we watch a set of academic sleuths in the present day dig about in a country manor for clues about Lord Byron (who once visited), we can simultaneously watch, through some sort of time warp, the historical record of that fateful weekend back in 1809.  Today's intellectuals rattle on about sex and the romantic imagination; little do they know their counterparts two centuries ago were consumed instead with thoughts of sex and science - largely because a mathematical prodigy was on the premises, in the person of young Thomasina Coverly (note the similarity of that first name to Stoppard's own, Tomáš - yes, his ego et in Arcadia). She was the real "genius" of the house, not Byron, although her achievements, like her short life, were lost; our true history is always a secret, Stoppard whispers (thus Thomasina's descendant in the present day won't speak at all) - even as he braids together C.P. Snow's two cultures of science and the humanities more intimately than perhaps any one else has ever managed; indeed, the playwright's final images are of the two ages (and cultures) dancing around each other in an entwined enchantment.

All this, of course, makes Arcadia quite a challenge - it requires a large, poised and articulate cast that can bring off serious debate and romantic feeling as well as high comedy (and a director who knows how to keep that delicate balance).  So it felt like a stretch for a fringe company - still, I had heard good things about the Bad Habit version (which closed, alas, last weekend - this is a post-mortem, but then that's kind of appropriate for Arcadia).  And I've often been surprised at what the fringe can do - indeed, every season a fringe show ranks in my top 10 for the year.

Greg Nussen and David Lutheran make their way through the thickets of Arcadia.
So I wasn't shocked to discover that this Arcadia was, indeed, a solid effort - wittily directed and mostly well-acted, with one or two stand-out performances.  To be honest, it was helped immensely, in my view, by being apparently acted by smart, quirky people who understood what it was about, rather than by a crowd of Equity actors attempting to simulate a professorial intelligence they didn't really have.  Alas, a few mis-castings, and one or two failures in acting energy (there was little sexual heat in this version) kept it, I think, from greatness.  Still, director Daniel Morris and his cast did well by Stoppard's ideas - and there are a lot of those in Arcadia; as should be the case with this particular play, you could feel the audience paying close attention to everything that transpired, eager to catch every multi-layered quip and witty aside (a sight not often seen at our larger stages, I'm telling you).  And I felt that the decision to produce the script on the stage of the Wimberley Theatre, in the round, proved inspired; I'd always thought of Arcadia as a proscenium show, but something about the arena staging, with its matrix of exits and entrances, resonated with the play's themes; the only thing lacking, alas (and you rarely get this anyway), was the backdrop of romantically ruined grounds that are meant to be seen outside the windows of "Sidley Park" - and which become freighted with more and more tragic meaning as the play progresses.

But this reminds me, I'm afraid, of the one great failure in Morris's otherwise astute direction - the play's final tragedy, which Stoppard never states directly (and which I can't give away without ruining the sad magic of its discovery) - didn't really coalesce in the audience's mind, I don't think, as the curtain fell (although perhaps it did after later discussion). That gap, however, was connected intimately to the production's other great gap - in the pivotal role of Thomasina's besotted tutor, Septimus Hodge, young Greg Nussen proved woefully inadequate.  Mr. Nussen is very nice to look at - and his voice is a pleasing purr; but his blandness was a constant reminder that, as they say, beauty isn't everything.  And his performance was a particular problem because Septimus Hodge is supposed to have the passionately beating, ultimately broken heart at the center of the script!

Luckily, everyone else seemed to know what they were doing - even when they weren't quite right for their respective roles - so generally the play moved forward without him. John Geoffrion, for instance (a frequent commenter on this blog, btw), brought a welcome spark to Bernard Nightingale, the egotistical, Stoppard-like Byron expert who stomps all over the work of the Byatt-like Hannah Jarvis.  Geoffrion was one of those slight miscastings in the show that worked pretty well anyway - he played Nightingale as more of a twit than a dick, and so the sexual tension between him and Jarvis went missing - but he threw himself with such eager fire into his rants on art and science that you didn't really mind.  Meanwhile, as Jarvis, Sarah Bedard didn't seem to mind the lack of tension either; Bedard is a beauty, and projected the right kind of skeptical intelligence as Jarvis, but she was always too calm for me to really believe in her slow burn - nor did I quite see her put together the script's great mystery in her head (Nightingale's thesis on Byron is an ego-driven fantasy, but Jarvis steadily works her way toward something like the truth).

Still, Bedard managed many a witty turn of phrase, and there were similarly nice turns from many in the cast.  As the smartly sluttish Lady Croom, for instance, A. Nora Long didn't convince me as a sexual raptor, but her drily rendered sarcasm was always delightful; meanwhile, Nick Chris was utterly believable as Stoppard's brilliant exponent of chaos, but didn't always have the sensitive vulnerability that surfaces now and then in the part (and which afflicts his entire eccentric family).  There were more consistently satisfying comic turns from David Lutheran, as an idiotically pompous cuckold, and especially Glen Moore, as his blowhard companion.  Meanwhile Luke Murtha was always sweetly intriguing as that silent brother.  But at the center of the production was a really spectacular turn by newcomer Alycia Sacco as the sparkling Thomasina - easily the best performance of this role I've seen out of four professional productions.  Whenever Sacco giggled, or waltzed to Chopin, or uncertainly offered a brilliant solution to an unsolved theorem, the show all but belonged to her, and you felt art and science dancing together (for a brief moment) just as Stoppard meant them to.


  1. Thank you for treating the Boston area's Fringe theatre (not sure if this is the most appropriate moniker for our Alliance members, but it'll do) with the same critical consideration as the 'legit' theatres.

  2. Thanks for your generous comment, John. Although in some ways I actually bring higher critical standards to fringe shows than "legit" ones, because there's simply more to talk about. You don't see much Chekhov, or Stoppard, or Ovid (!) on our larger stages because those authors are just too risky and difficult, and critical expectations - at least when it comes to content - are correspondingly higher.

  3. I often find the discovery of meaning which is developed in company after a show to be more satisfying than that arrived at, by myself, in the theatre. Not to say that these are mutually exclusive, but, after all, isn't that why we appreciate the work of the critic?