Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In Arcadia, Stoppard taps into science, mathematics, philosophy and poetry, and to add to the labyrinth of ideas, has the play travel back and forth between the 1809 and today. It is an aerobic workout for one's intellect, sense of humor and earsattentive listening is crucial. Chameleon Theatre Circle's recent production of Arcadia had a brief run at the Ames Center's Black Box Theater, offering a welcome opportunity to revisit this intricately crafted, sublimely witty, and ferociously intelligent play.
Starting out in 1809, Septimus Hodge is the 22-year-old tutor of Thomasina Coverly, the extremely precocious and prescient 13-year-old daughter of the estate's Lord and Lady. The play begins with Thomasina asking her tutor for the definition of "carnal embrace," a phrase she overheard through gossip about a houseguest at the estate, Mrs. Chater, and an unidentified male seen in the gazebo. We learn soon enough that Septimus himself is the male in question when Ezra Chater enters, demanding satisfaction. Typical of Stoppard's wit, Septimus demurs "Mrs. Chater demanded satisfaction, and now you demand satisfaction." Septimus deflects Chater's rage by flattering his poetry, implying that he in in the midst of writing a review in praise of Chater's just published poem. Chater falls for this ploy and even autographs a copy of the poem for Septimus.
Lady Croom enters, wailing "Not the gazebo!," which Septimus takes as her objection to use of the gazebo for illicit coupling. In fact, she is appalled by her landscaper, Mr. Noakes', proposal to turn her elegant formal gardens into the gothic style gaining fashionwilder and "natural," though a most planned approach to nature. Noakes' plan includes tearing down the gazebo to be replaced with a hermitage. Again, Stoppard's wit dazzles: Lady Croom asks Mr. Noakes how he will find a hermit to occupy the hermitage and Noakes suggests they could advertise in the town newspaper. Lady Croom chides him, saying "But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have much confidence."
Scene two shifts to 2017 (1993 when the play had its premier, but as the stage directions say "In the present," the year will always match the current calendar) and Sidley park is occupied by Valentine Coverly, a scholar of biological mathematics, his sister Chloë, and their mute young brother Gus. Hannah Jarvis, a literary scholar and writer of a bestseller about Caroline Lamb, who was Lord Byron's mistress, is also present, pursuing her interest in the elusive hermit who long ago lived in the Sidley Park hermitage. Bernard Nightingale, another literary scholar, arrives. He is giddy over his theory that Lord Bryon was a guest at the estate along with Ezra Chater, that Byron killed Chater in a duel, and that was the actual reason Byron left England. His evidence: an autographed copy of Chater's poem found in a long overlooked collection of Byron's effects. He harrumphs his way into Sidley Park, determined to track down a last bit of proof for his thesis, which will make him a great success with the Byron Society.
The four scenes in act one and three in act two shift back and forth between the time periods and sets of characters, all in the confines of the Sidley Park garden room. The final scene moves from 1809 to 1812, making Thomasina sixteen years old and harboring romantic longings. In that scene, characters from 1812 and those from the present appear on stage together, oblivious to one another as they cross paths. The gambit brings the parallel tracks between those events, two hundred years apart, into focus, and confirms one of Thomasina's theorems about the irreversible course of time.
Stoppard's original title for the play was the Latin Et in Arcadia ego, a phrase usually interpreted to mean "Even in Arcadia there am I." The "I" in that phrase is death, signifying that even among the verdant beauty of nature, death finds us. The phrase is associated with a 1647 painting by Nicolas Poussin known as "The Arcadian Shepherds." In the painting, the phrase is inscribed on a tomb found by youthful shepherds. Stoppard's Arcadia is a forest of ideas, fed by springs of creativityyet even amidst the burst intellect, each of us will perish. This may explain the very end of the play, in which pairs of characters abandon their thrall of the intellect in favor of a sensual pleasure: the waltz.
Chameleon's production, directed by Duck Washington who managed well the time travel between scenes with almost seamless transitions, showed the play to good advantage in terms of physical production and performances. Every one of the major characters was given a plum performance: Mackenzie Diggins as Thomasina Coverly, Philip D. Henry as a Septimus Hodge, Dawn Krosnowski as Lady Croom, Ariel Leaf as Hannah Jarvis, Nicole Laurenne as Chloë Coverly, Nick Menzhuber as Valentine Coverly and, best of the lot, Andy Browers as Bernard Nightingale, whose inflated ego heads for a fall. The other, smaller roles all were performed well, and there was even a cameo by Sloth, a tortoise who occupies the constantly present reading table, as "Lightning" in 1809 and "Plautus" in 2017.
With the flexible Black Box stage configured in the round, director Duck Washington used a perimeter curb around the playing area, like the rings surrounding circus acts, decorated with period floral flourishes. This formed the garden room of Sidley Park, the country estate of Lord and Lady Croom. On one corner of the stage the same floral motif formed a frame around a pair of French doors, behind which was a depiction of the estate's gardens. The only fixed object in the garden room was a large table upon which were a cluttered array of props for both the 1807 and 2017 scenes. The costumes were apt reflections of the paired time periods and status of each character.
An unfortunate flaw diminished the satisfaction to be had in this production of Arcadia. Acoustics in the Ames Black Box have never been very good, and the in-the-round staging did not help, as it was difficult to hear actors when their backs were turned. In addition, the English accents employed by the entire cast were not consistently distinct enough to be easily understood. Remember, I said Arcadia is a workout for the ear. In this production, the ears had their work cut out for them.
Still, the production displayed Stoppard's intelligence and wit. It offered a contrast between the small kernels of "knowledge" pursued by academics and the triviality of those pursuits with Thomasina, so young and so ahead of her time, who conjures up big ideas with cosmic significance. While working on geometry, she objects to connecting plotted points to form geometric shapes. She wants an equation that will plot the outline of a rose, something real and beautiful, not abstract and dry. In Arcadia, Stoppard seems to mock the pursuit of trivialities, and calls for us to embrace big ideas that have import in the real world.
Arcadia ran June 2-11, 2017, at the Ames Center Black Box Theatre in Burnsville, Minnesota. A note about Chameleon Theatre Circle: After nine years in residence at the Ames Center in Burnsville, Chameleon will present its upcoming 20th season at a variety of venues, including Artistry in Bloomington, Gremlin Theatre's new performance space in Saint Paul, and Sabes Jewish Community Center in Saint Louis Park. To learn more, visit www.chameleontheatre.org.
Writer: Tom Stoppard; Director: Duck Washington; Scenic Design: Sadie Ward; Costume Design: C.J. Mantel; Lighting Design: Mark Halvorson; Sound Design: Forest Godfrey; Prop Design: Teri Ristow; Choreography: Angela Fox; Dialect Consultant: Joel Raney; Assistant Scenic Designer: Corinna Knepper Troth; Stage Manager: Erin Green Vita; Technical Director: Andi Billig; Producers: Scott Gilbert and Jim Vogel; Executive Producer: Andrew Troth.
Cast: Andy Browers (Bernard Nightingale), Dan Britt (Captain Brice), Mackenzie Diggins (Thomasina Coverly), Philip D. Henry (Septimus Hodge), Danielle Krivinchuk (Jellaby), Dawn Krosnowski (Lady Croom), Nicole Laurenne (Chloë Coverly), Ariel Leaf (Hannah Jarvis), Cody Madison (Gus/Augustus), Nick Menzhuber (Valentine Coverly), Matt Saxe (Richard Noakes), Matthew Stoffel (Ezra Chater), Sloth (Lightning/Plautus).