Cap and Bells deftly approaches Stoppard classic

‘Arcadia,’ which showed last weekend, reconciled the accessible with the inaccessible in its adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s classic. Photo courtesy of Meg Bantle
‘Arcadia,’ which showed last weekend, reconciled the accessible with the inaccessible in its adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s classic. Photo courtesy of Meg Bantle

The 1993 play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, is a daunting work to tackle, especially for the uninitiated. To start, understanding the play itself requires an understanding of Fermat’s last theorem, the rise of romanticism and Byron’s significance in the literary canon. Cap and Bells’ production of Arcadia, directed by Quinn Solfisburg ’14 last weekend in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, however, was unexpectedly accessible and grounded in the human perspective.
Arcadia begins in 1809, in a British country house where the precocious daughter of the house, Thomasina Coverly (Sophia Montgomery ’14), questions her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Mike Druker ’17) on the definition of carnal embrace. Stoppard’s famous wit is apparent from the start with Septimus’s definition of carnal embrace as “the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.” Thomasina soon becomes fascinated by the possibility of writing a formula for the future, demonstrating an intellect beyond her time and years.
In the present day, writer Hannah Jarvis (Melissa Soule ’15) investigates a hermit who lived at Sidley Park a little after Thomasina’s time, while Bernard Nightingale (Justin Jones ’16) researches Lord Byron’s past.
Thomasina’s tragic fate and the significance of her discovery are revealed as the play shifts between past and present, signaled by a rainbow cacophony of lights, an artistic addition to the original text. This use of a visual signal felt unnecessary and disorientating, as the characters’ dress and manner of speaking themselves would have been sufficient to distinguish between times periods. However, for those fond of science fiction, this addition added what could be seen as a nifty “time warp” effect.
The two dominant narratives converge in a chaotic final scene, one of the most significant moments in the play. Thomasina does not seem to have changed much, and her earlier precociousness is unable to carry the gravity of the final scenes – what originally felt endearing and bemusing becomes a jarring demonstration of teenage petulance. In the last moments of the play, time falls into suspension as a couple from each narrative waltzes onstage simultaneously; together yet apart. In this moment, the limitations of time are transcended, and the past and present become one in a shared action. The present-day couple’s awkwardness contrasts with the graceful dancing of the other pair, showing that repetition of the past in the present is not a seamless replication. An ingenious use of lighting in the form of luminous flashes accompanied by a crackling sound turned the stage into the innards of a flame, serving as a subtle reminder of Thomasina’s eventual fiery death revealed to the audience only through dialogue.
The play was full of brilliant acting. Jones stole the show with his flamboyant mannerisms, creating a comedic effect that contrasted well with Soule’s scholarly reserve, especially when clothed in several different patterns, suspenders and a bow tie that pushed the boundaries of Stoppard’s relatively reserved characterization. Druker takes on his various roles of trusted tutor, deceptive friend and voracious intellectual with debonair charm. Lady Croome (Jojo McDonald ’14), dominates the stage as she paces across it composedly, lost in a torrential tirade of self-concern. Valentine Coverly (Jackson Zerkle ’17) fills out the role of an absent-minded intellectual to perfection, with small habitual quirks such as the vigorous rubbing of his nose. The choice of actors and their distinctive personalities elevated the original text, making it more approachable for a modern audience.
Consequentially, however, the philosophical side of the play was downplayed. For example, the original intent was for the table to accumulate objects as the play progressed, signifying the passing of time as well as the irreversible increase of entropy. This provides a much-needed counterpoint to the structure of the play, which slides backward and forward in time. Objects did accrue, but not in a sustained manner, with the bulk of them appearing at the start of the second act. The meaning of the table and thus and important concept in the play became lost in the physical mess.
Arcadia seeks to reconcile the predictable with the unpredictable. This remained true in its production, with a last minute understudy by Emily Loveridge ’14 for Teague Morris ’17 in the role of Jellaby the butler. It is a complicated and ambitious play that attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable – the present and past, intellect and sex. This production favored the personal over the intellectual, which made for great humor and accessibility, even as some of the philosophical meditations of the play were less apparent. As Thomasina optimistically responds to Septimus’s bleak observations about life, “Then we will dance.” There is something to be said for having a good time in life, and without a doubt, that was what Arcadia accomplished.

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