Whenever I see a Tom Stoppard play, I want to bring a ladder to lift myself up to the intellectual rigors of the world he inhabits. Stoppard is an idea person and so erudite that one can forget the deep understanding of his characters and their emotional dramas they play out while in the midst of heavy debate. Their thrusts and parries are not limited to their verbal wit; sex is if not exactly upfront, quite central.
I received a letter once from the playwright… a response to a fawning fan that was both charming and polite. That he took the time to send a note to a young fan in New York speaks to character not seen often enough.
Arcadia is a dense, thrilling and wonderfully look at the big questions: mechanistic science vs chaos theory, Romanticism vs Classicism. And even a discussion on the preferred style of the English formal gardens. The players, stepping between centuries are all passionate, opinionated people…costumes change but their behavior, laden with schemes and ambition, are pretty much constant.
Potomac Theatre Project, hailing from Middlebury College in Vermont is also a constant. They bring intelligent, beautifully directed and performed fare to New York and we are so much luckier for it. Cheryl Farone, Co-artistic director, has her hands full with this play that bounces between time periods and accomplishes it with grace.
Septimus, (Andrew William Smith) the teacher of a young Thomasina (Caitlin Duffy) is for me the moral barometer of the play. Mr. Smith, while fully looking the part, disappoints slightly in his delivery of the rapid fire text. But he is so lovely in his velveteens, that one soon forgets. His student Thomasina, is smashing. Her natural abilities are soon made clear and we see the power and strength that Mr. Stoppard is unafraid to give his female characters. Her mother Lady Croom (Megan Byrne) deftly manages comedy and imperiousness in equal strengths. In the twentieth century, however, academic Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen), has no aristocracy to hide behind and faces the world of competition and ambition with thoughtfulness and sincerity.
While the material occasionally dances above my humble education, Stoppard also gives us immediately understandable and recognizable characters like the cuckolded poet, Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle) who mirrors our own vanities and predicts the obsession with fame and approbation that the art and literary world wears like a cloak.
As the contemporary ego tripping academic sleuth Bernard (Alex Draper) is perfectly obsessive and clever. His drive to resolve the history of the Great House and its occupants must certainly lead to imbalance. We are not completely surprised that he falls from grace and that he leaves a woman in the dust in his tumble.
In a smaller role, a young Manny Duran, a junior at Middlebury College, plays Thomasina’s brother Augustus as well as contemporary Gus. For most of the play, he doesn’t speak, but his face is marvelous. It’s a face that’s seen in historic paintings of courtly life, but not as an aristocrat.
The environment of this production owes much to the costume designer, Danielle Nieves, whose frocks and cutaways are stunning. As is the delicate scenic design by Mark Evancho.