History and physics waltz in ‘Arcadia’

Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is a truly intellectual undertaking considering the limitations of any small college production company. The script is long and the parts complex, and the many nuances associated with the discovery of each truth creates a necessary reliance on adhering to these subtleties in the production. Rolando Garcia ’02 assumed the mantle of director for the last time as a Williams student last weekend to present to the College community a show encompassing history, “sex and literature” and a lesson in thermodynamics on the AMT DownStage.

Stoppard’s plot concerns the history of the estate of Sidley Park in Derbyshire, England. The action jumps between 1809 and the present, with those in the present attempting to fathom the depth of what happened to those in the past. The historians get their conclusions utterly wrong initially, and even after extensive research, they never truly resolve their contrasting images of what came to pass. The audience experiences “first-hand” what it is that the historians clumsily stumble over and are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about the relationships between the characters.

Garcia, a theatre major and veteran director of Cap & Bells productions, chose the script because he finds that “[people] forget that entertainment is one of the best ways to convey intellectual and serious material. After all, people’s favorite professors are usually the ones that are engaging and entertain you as they teach.” In the same way, Garcia feels, theatre at Williams “tends to concentrate too much on being avant garde or unusual and in the end it just alienates the audience, losing the chance to convey something interesting.”

The set, designed by Claire Kendrick ’03, reflected an Aristotelian unity of space; all the action takes place in the one salon of the Derbyshire mansion. The refreshingly uncomplicated room was painted an invigorating kelly green accented with white lattices serving as doors, gauzy curtains and subtle background lighting indicating time of day and little else. The colors may have been anachronistic to the action of the past, but this wasn’t a focal concern. A long dining room table at center stage served as the portal between past and present action, allowing a blending of two sets into one singular space.

The quality of the casting was perhaps the brightest point of the production. Sara Martin ’05, in her first time acting at Williams, was perfect for the romantic lead of Thomasina Coverly – for those for whom this production of “Arcadia” was their first live encounter with Stoppard’s play, it may be impossible to see it on another stage without consciously comparing a new rendition of this part with Martin’s. She played Thomasina with both intellectual maturity and subdued dignity, but most of all, with a convincing delight in her character’s own brilliant adolescence. Many audience members marveled also at the actress’ striking physical resemblance to a much younger girl, played up with delicate blond curls and costumes gift-wrapped in ribbons.

Not to be outdone by his co-star, Andrew Giarolo ’04 quite obviously relished his role as the seductive Septimus Hodge. His delivery of the tutor’s languid appreciation of women and sharp-tongued double-entendres became the audience’s steadiest foothold on the unfolding of the plot. Giarolo has mastered the self-satisfied grin, wielding it as the deadly weapon of his character’s sense of self-preservation.

Of the characters rooted in the present, Kate Roberts ’04 outshone the rest with her cool performance of the unapologetically intellectual author Hannah Jarvis. Roberts was perfectly disaffected in the role; her simmering arrogance steamed up through a imperturbably icy exterior. Craig Iturbe ’04, opposite Roberts as the supercilious Bernard Nightingale, matched her in arrogance but seemed unsure about how slimy the role should be. His character seemed overeager and sycophantic in his first scenes, self-important in the middle and academically defeated in the last moments. However, he was perhaps too likable initially – if that could be listed as a fault. The audience never got the same impression from him as they did from Roberts of an over-saturation of competition between the two academics.

John Bryk ’02 as Val Coverly seemed plucked straight from the head of a TA session for Physics 301. A surprisingly natural stage presence, Bryk succeeded in synthesizing confidence and modesty in an intellectual setting with romantic shyness and quiet affection around Roberts. Ari Schoenholtz ’05, a famously gregarious Williams presence, managed to play the mute part of Gus Coverly with aplomb, and Cyndi Wong ’04 was appropriately flighty as Chloe Coverly.

The foppish and easily-flattered Ezra Chater (Spencer Wong ’04), the affected duo of Richard Noakes and Capt. Brice (Stephen Dobay ’05 and Marcos Sahm ’04) and fickle Lady Croom (Emily Ente ’05) faded into the background perhaps too readily, although what the audience saw of them was on par for their characters. The ruffled outbursts that developed into unwarranted screaming matches between Wong and Giarolo should have been toned down, since the volume escalated to what began to sound like dogs barking after a few lines.

The most common audience criticism of the play concerned the tempo. “Arcadia” is not a short play, but the production ran through its seven scenes in under two and a half hours. By Williams standards, a running time in this league is already taxing – however, at times it felt like the production was, in the words of one patron, “plowing through the script.” Complex sequences like Stoppard’s are difficult to edit down for time considerations, but the development of the plot felt “rushed,” “crammed” – even “obtuse.” One member of the audience went so far as to say that “[the plot] was incomprehensible” due to the speed at which the play was acted.

Additionally, some extra attention to the consistent use of language would have alleviated the distraction of frequently fading British accents and stumbled-over lines. “Arcadia” is meant to be longer than two and a half hours – by not cutting dialogue, the pace of speech was forced to increase, which in turn drove up the number of mistakes just waiting to seize the audience’s attention away from the delivery of truly eloquent prose. It would have been to the play’s merit to allow the performance to last until 11 p.m. In the program, Garcia underscored his personal philosophy of theatre that “no show is worth doing if the audience doesn’t come away from it entertained.” For those who were familiar with the play, Garcia largely succeeded. However, the performance did not seem geared or accommodating to those for whom such a complex production was a new experience, and the production may have benefited from an impartial eye prior to its execution on stage.

“Arcadia,” written by Tom Stoppard, was produced by Cap & Bells and by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. It ran April 18 through 20 at 8 p.m. on the AMT DownStage.