Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a moveable feast for the eyes, ears, heart and mind. The time period shifts between 1809 and modern day, characters express their philosophical meanderings at the slightest provocation, scientific relativity and mathematical theories abound, the text explores landscaping design of the English garden, and there’s even ruminations about carnal embrace. But at the heart of the play is a fixation on seeking the truth – whether you find it, or even know what you’re looking for is not as important as the actual quest itself.
Director Aaron Posner facilitates the journey by assuring an even keel among the characters. The actors have an almost reverential zeal in their various portrayals. Even the splendid costumes and practical set design by Kate Turner-Walker and Daniel Conway respectively add to the impact and effect. Finally, the play fits beautifully on the historic Folger space.
Even if one has a periodic urge to trim the hedges of the pontification a bit, it’s Stoppard at his genteel best with clever, lovable and laughable characters from two distinct time periods on the brink of exciting discoveries. What’s not to love?
Admittedly, with all the characters, different time periods, subtexts and historical references, the story can sound overwhelmingly complex. Add in Stoppard’s provocative themes which he weaves into the text making points and counterpoints, refracting philosophical arguments from the two time periods, emphasizing the striking similarities, having characters articulate each other’s positions from various perspectives, – sometimes at each other across time. It’s haunting and fugue-like, and maddeningly creative.
Lest this sound too surreal and inaccessible, note that the play opens in 1809 with a precocious teenager, Thomasina Coverly, played winningly by Erin Weaver, who stumps her tutor with a sudden question about the meaning of carnal embrace. From there, the heart of the play opens like a gorgeous blossom, with the usually smooth and erudite teacher sputtering and muttering and going into all kinds of riffs to detour the conversation into safer territory, especially when it becomes revealed that he was the one spotted and observed in the aforementioned compromised position – with the lady of the house, no less.
Stoppard is as unstoppably funny as he is unflinchingly intellectual, and to sit in the crosswinds of such a fascinating mix is beyond refreshing. He entices us and brings us into the story with hints of carnal knowledge and has his way with us for the rest of the play.
Holly Twyford truly embodies the analytic, sometimes caustic researcher Hannah Jarvis, who sees nothing but the evidence that’s in front of her nose. Hannah is poking around the Coverly Estate researching a mysterious hermit who once lived there, and a fellow researcher/ antagonist/ potential love interest Bernard Nightingale (Eric Hessom), is determined to prove Lord Byron stayed there during a pivotal period in question.
Hannah will leave no fact behind in her mission while Nightingale proves to be a reliable sparring partner more inclined to mix it up a bit, stretch the evidence to fit his conjecture with a Devil-be- dammed disregard for what doesn’t conveniently fit into his heavy-handed analytical reasonings.
The dialog between these two escalates from sparks to fireworks as the stakes increase and the characters brandish their weapon of choice – newly discovered text, book passages, a hidden quote from a contemporary that proves who was where, said what, and did (or from conjecture may have done) to prove their point. The possibilities are endless and Stoppard has a field day exposing their singular approach to their life work, how each attacks, defends, counterattacks, in verbal fencing moves to jab and strike. Their urgency is palpable, and these are the perfect actors for the task. -Twyford, who could stare down a man-eating beast in an argument, and Hissom whose entire body trembles with excitement as he makes his fevered pitch. All they need is a hint, a clue to prove (or disprove) a treasured point. And the more they search, the more they hit a basic premise to the effect of– .”What a great time to live!..Everything I thought I knew, I now realize I know nothing…” It’s a treat to watch actors of this caliber immerse themselves in such delectable material.
The other characters are equally well cast. Erin Weaver as child protégé Thomasina Coverly has a wonderful way with expression and moves with purpose and ease as a 13 year old and later as a young budding adolescent. She interacts beautifully with her scrumptious tutor Septimus Hodge (Cody Nickell), who, along with easily heated Lady Croom (Suzanne O’Donnell), and the landscaper gardener (veteran New York actor Stephen D’Ambrose), all showcase a treasure chest of talent, skillfully used.
Stoppard’s text is not particularly melodious, fluid, or easy. The actors sometimes have to fight their way through long passages addressing aspects of the Enlightenment, Chaos Theory, mathematical inquiry, thermodynamics, and Newtonian physics that would challenge the nerdy geniuses on the Big Bang Theory. That the entire cast can deliver the goods with such ease makes me wonder if they can also dance backwards, in heels. The unseen but perpetually felt presence of heart throb Lord Byron adds just enough combustible agent to assure a sudden inexplicable urge to swoon at the least provocation, a constant reminder of the carnal nature lurking amidst all the science. Stoppard covers it all.
The perpetual quest for truth is the thing. The past informs (and sometimes misinforms) the present. And what at one point is accepted as cold, hard fact can slip into questionable territory, or even be proven to be as dead wrong as a geocentric, earth-centered universe. Arcadia shows the fluidity of one’s perception of the world as reflected in the microcosm of a country house and its inhabitants over two centuries. This gem shining brightly at Folgers Theatre offers a glimpse into the mind and heart of one of the brightest minds in English literature. “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter” says one of the characters. Arcadia can serve as an enjoyable and stimulating glide path to matter.
by Tom Stoppard
directed by Aaron Posner
produced by Folger Theatre
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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