Reviewed by Will Stackman
The choice of Tom Stoppard's time-spanning drama "Arcadia" for the Publick Theatre's first non-Shakespearean drama in recent seasons was inspired. Not only does this script suit their motto, "demonstrating the power of the spoken word," but director Diego Arciniegas has assembled a cast from the regular company and local actors which suits the play remarkably well. Producing director Susanne Nitter has an ideal role as donnish writer Hannah Jarvis, researching the history of Lord Croom's country estate and gardens, while a guest of his wife. Jarvis recently published an analysis of the novels of Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's mistress. Nigel Gore, seen this winter in Sugan's Norton Award-winning "Sanctuary Lamp"--and just back from doing the Scottish play on the West Coast--is a rival, Professor Bernard Nightingale, hoping to capitalize on Jarvis' current research while pursuing his own theories about Byron. He dismissed her book in print, incidentally. These two are the center of the action in the present, handling Stoppard's academic repartee in grand style.
In the past, early in the 19th century at the same location, the daughter of the then Lord Croom, teenage Thomasina Coverly played by Ellen Adair, is learning algebra from her tutor, Septimus Hodge, a rakish young University man, played by Lewis Wheeler. Hodge's been romancing various ladies, including the roundheeled wife of a local poet, Ezra Chater, played by Owen Doyle, guesting there with his wife. He's just published a second poetic narrative. Hodge, whose brother publishes a London periodical, wrote a scathing review of Chater's first effort, unbeknownst to the erstwhile poet. Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom, played by Caroline Lawton has her eye on youthful Hodge. her Her brother, dashing Captain Brice, played by Bill Mootos in full nautical regalia, has set his sights on Mrs. Chater. That lady incidentally is among the characters never seen onstage. Other offstage presences include Lord Croom and eventually, Hodge's schoolmate, George Gordon, Lord Byron, on whom Thomasina develops a crush. Among those present, to Lady Croom's dismay however, is Gerard Slattery as Noakes, a landscape designer whom her husband is having convert the estate grounds from Arcadian tranquility to Romantic wilderness, complete with a hermitage. The servants are represented by Jellaby the butler, played impeccably by PT regular Bill Gardiner.
Back in the present, the Coverly family consists first of Valentine, an intense young mathematician played by Eric Hamel, who refers to Hannah, two decades his senior, as his fiance. Then there's his hoydenish sister, Chloe, played by Joy Lamberton, who develops a crush on Nightingale. Their pathologically shy younger brother Gus, played by Will Ford, a student in PT's Young Company for the past two summers, never speaks, but pays keen attention to what's going on. He's the only cast member who appears in both periods, showing up in the second act as haughty Augustus, Thomasina's brother, a small but important role which figures in final blending of the past and the present. There are no servants. Chloe apparently runs the house while her mother gardens. Neither modern parent appears.
As with most of Stoppard's plays, this 1993 script operates at several levels. "Arcadia" is at once a period country-house comedy, admirably suited to Publick's outdoor arena and an academic puzzle concerning the hermitage. In addition the drama poses the paradox of time and the nature of mathematics, suggesting that young Thomasina, a naive genius, was on the verge of discovering something like fractal geometry. The girl was also considering the one-way flow of time and the possibly erotic nature of the universe. Stoppard demonstrates to his audience that the only currently effective form of time-travel is imagination. Arciniegas skillfully juggles the comic machinations of both the plot concerning Chater and his errant wife and Nightingale's discovery that Lord Byron was also present, which leads the ambitious academic to jump to an obvious and erroneous conclusion. There are also surprising revelations about the probable intertwined fates of Thomasina and Septimus. This is a piece of theatre that cries out for a second viewing, before or after reading or rereading the script. It's entirely appropriate that a company which developed around contemporary presentations of Shakespeare should set about to untangle Stoppard's complexities clearly and consistently.
For this year's season Publick returns to a unit set, planned by Arciniegas and production manager C. Russ Fletcher, with Brianne Brutinel as associate designer. The setting features a backdrop of huge pillars, which separate the action inside the mansion from the gardens beyond, in this case real trees growing along the Charles. The arrangement will also serve for "The Comedy of Errors" which joins a weekly rotation July 21st. The believable and wearable, not to mention handsome, period costumes by Emerson's Rafael Jaen bring the past to life, while his contemporary garb provides a clear contrast. Period blurs appropriately at the play's climax as the modern's don early 19th century garb for a summer fete out in the current Lady Croom's garden. John Doerschuk's wide-ranging sound effects, from birds and gunshots to period piano, contribute much to the show as does Anthony R. Phelps' clear lighting. The intimate yet expansive setting in Publick's outdoor arena suits the play better than Huntington's proscenium did several seasons ago. It will be interesting to see how Longwood's production this fall works out in historic Durrell Hall in Cambridge.