Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: "Arcadia"

"Et in Arcadia ego." Literally translated, it means "And in Arcadia I"; more figuratively, it is "And I too was in Arcadia." Arcadia is generally defined as a region of rural simplicity and contentment, a nice place to find happiness.

"Arcadia" is also the name of Tom Stoppard's great 1993 play, currently revived on Broadway.

It takes place in an English country house and alternates between the present and 1809. In the 1809 part, a  man name Septimus Hodge tutors a young girl named Thomasina Coverly. An intriguing character, Hodge is also a friend of the great poet Lord Byron (who we do not see in the play) and has been having an affair with the wife of another great poet, Ezra Chater (Hodge and Chater's wife were allegedly caught in a "perpendicular poke" in a gazebo, thus triggering the plot). Hodge's life is quite complex: he is called out by Chater to duel for his wife's honor and he is also developing an inappropriate relationship with Thomasina. As time goes by, it become clear that Thomasina is also a mathematically genius, understanding and discovering the second law of thermodynamics years before it officially was.

In the present, a writer named Hannah Jarvis and a literature professor Bernard Nightengale are  investigating a strange event  in the life of Byron. They believe that he, not Hodge, may have killed Chater in the duel. As they and other begin to go through the old treasurers in the house, they discover the truth about what happened -- and about Thomasina's early genius. 

"Arcadia" is a very complicated, intriguing play. You go in thinking this is a standard English drama set in the country -- albeit with a time twisting narrative and a murder mystery to boot -- but it turns out, instead, to be a discourse on how we come to understand the past (like mathematics, we try to make sense of it through deduction and reason and evidence -- but ultimately there are things we can never know and chaos plays a huge part). "The future is chaos" one character says. Living in these troubled times, that has never seemed more true.

Amazingly written by Stoppard, "Arcadia" is considered one of his best plays. The original Broadway production in the 1990s was a hailed as a masterpiece and, full disclosure, I'm a huge Tom Stoppard fan (I was unable to see "Rock'n'Roll" and "The Coast of Utopia" but did see the revivals of "The Real Thing", "Jumpers" and "The Invention of Love" several years ago). Stoppard's plays are so funny, his characters so interesting, and the language so beautiful, that he manages to effectively convey difficult ideas quite clearly. His plays are also very dense -- lots going at once. My brief synopsis above in way captures the full complexity of the play. After seeing it, I felt the need to go out and read the script for myself.

The current production is quite good if not great. The cast is mostly excellent with an actor named Tom Riley as the stand out playing Hodge. His performance is the glue that binds the play together, making a mostly awful guy as sympathetic as can be. Also great is someone named Margaret Colin who plays Lady Croom, Thomasina's mother, who rules the estate. In the modern day parts, Lia Williams is wonderful as Hannh Jarvis, the nutty author. Billy Crudup is good as Bernard Nightengale but his performance is a bit manic and overacted. I usually like Raul Esparza -- who was great in "Company" and "Speed the Plow" but I felt he probably wasn't right the part of Valentime Coverly (a modern day member of the family who helps Bernard and Hannah in their work). 

Also, and this has been mentioned by others, the sound in the theater was a little low so it wasn't always easy to hear the dialogue -- not good for a play trying to communicate such complex ideas.

Still, this production is very much worth seeing. When it's good, "Arcadia" is about as good theater as you'll ever see on Broadway. Tom Stoppard is incapable of writing a bad play and, even though this production is not the best interpretation of his work, you'll still be glad you saw this when you walk out of the theater.      

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please keep it civil, intelligent, and expletive-free. Otherwise, opine away.