‘Arcadia’ cast gamely navigates complex play

Arcadia! Innocence, sex, gardening, death, math, time, Byron, aristocracy, entropy, history, memory, youth – Arcadia! Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11 directed the student group Immediate Theatre’s production of the Tom Stoppard play, which played last weekend in Agard living room. The production held more than its fair share of old-fashioned stage magic, and at the end of the evening it was with reluctance that I withdrew from its candlelit glow to resume the dismal and bookish existence that is the lot of a reviewer of plays.

Arcadia concerns both the goings on of an English manor at the dawn of the 19th century and the attempts made in the present day by the current masters of the house (with the help of two combative academics) to reconstruct those goings on. I should confess at the beginning that I do not find Arcadia the play quite as charming as other people do. The characters occasionally come off as bundles of verbalisms rather than believable people, and I regret the play’s more didactic impulses (have you ever considered the attraction between two humans as an analogue to the more traditionally construed “forces of nature?” Stoppard has – and he would love to tell you about it). But if Arcadia is occasionally implausible and fact-bestrewn, this only increases the responsibility of the cast to make it come alive.

They were assisted by an inspired choice of venue, which simultaneously struck the correct note of rustic gentility and ever-so-gently reminded the audience that Williams College is an Arcadia of its own. I also appreciated the decision to stage it in the round, which added to the intimacy of the ambience.

The play opens with 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan ’10), daughter of the lady of the house, discussing carnal embrace with her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Quinn Franzen ’09). Barnett-Mulligan did a delicately lovely job of rendering Thomasina, who (Stoppard being Stoppard) speaks more like a literature professor than a tween. With motion, posture and gesture Barnett-Mulligan precisely located Thomasina’s inner child, making lines that look stilted on the page ring true in performance by sheer force of personality.

Franzen struggled at times as Septimus, particularly early in the play. As an actor he is blessed with an extraordinary amount of presence and physical command, and like most gifted people he relies on his gifts. Unfortunately here this meant a tendency to play big rather than subtle, so in a dispute with the poet Chater (Joe Lorenz ’10), whom he has cuckolded, he spends most of the scene shouting, and anger occludes the more complex emotions and motivations suggested by the text – missing the mark, I thought, on some of the best material in the play. The mark, to be sure, is a very small one: It is easy to waste Stoppard dialogue because it is so dense, but it must be said that in general the cast put every line to use, no matter how esoteric the reference or how improbable the simile.

Aspen Lee Jordan ’11, for instance, commanded the stage as Lady Croom, mistress of the house. Jordan was imperious and yet also stiffly vulnerable later in the play as a jilted lover.

Superimposed over the 19th century story of seductions, duels, garden renovations and a visit from Lord Byron is a story set in the present in which the remaining members of the Coverly family (who own the house) host Hannah Jarvis, a famous author played by Liza Curtiss ’10, and Bernard Nightingale, a preening don (Eric Phillips ’09), both of whom are researching the past inhabitants of the house. This material is tough going in many ways, and certainly none of these relationships is as compelling as the dominating one between Thomasina and Septimus. This part of the play might have sagged if it had not been for Eben Hoffer ’10, who surprised me by turning in the most accomplished and complete performance of the evening as Valentine Coverly. Hoffer discovered a character who is embittered but hasn’t quite given up, a would-be misanthrope who still retains a few soft spots, all mostly conveyed through a series of monologues about heat death and the challenges of mathematically modelling grouse migrations.

Curtiss and Phillips both worked hard at difficult parts, and Curtiss in particular had to spend a lot of time playing it straight. Phillips was pleasantly odious as an overbearing professor who rushes to publish a sensational falsehood, but I was left wanting more, or possibly less. Phillips has a lot of range as an actor, and I was sorry he didn’t use more of it.

According to Stoppard, the laws of thermodynamics tell us that no matter the efficiency of a system, you will never get out all the energy you put in. One might point out that mass and energy are technically conserved, but Stoppard is interested in the little bit that gets lost, be it the heat caused by the friction of a car tire against the road, or that of the reputed 116 burned plays of Sophocles or even that of a little girl (not so little any more) holding a candle against the darkening night. We are told “the system only works one way” – driving the car backward on the road will not recover the heat lost to friction; in other words what is lost is lost irrevocably. The unabashedly sentimental conclusion is that even though the entropy of a system tends to increase over time, and even though the characters know this, they’re still going to go on with the whole thing anyway and, even if you don’t want this to tug your heartstrings, unless you’re made of stone it does anyway because they look nice in their costumes and they sparkle a little under the light and in short it’s theater and that’s what it does.

This is what I thought as I watched the final moments of an accomplished and sincere production by a group of brave and abundantly talented amateurs. And then it was over and the house stood.