Theater Review: “Arcadia” – Winding the World Up … And Down

Nora Theatre Company artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner has put together a dazzling production that matches Tom Stoppard’s dazzling script.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA., through May 15.


Kira Patterson (Thomasina) & Will Madden (Septimus) in the Nora Theatre Company production of “Arcadia.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair.

By Ian Thal

Arcadia is one of the most acclaimed works of Tom Stoppard’s career and a seminal work in the genre of science plays. Through the script eschews the absurdism that marked the dramatist’s earlier work for a more naturalistic style, there is plenty of formal experimentation here: Two parallel stories occurring in different eras – the most recent involves scholars and family members attempting to reconstruct the events of an earlier period (Stoppard’s less-often produced India Ink makes use of a similar time juggling structure.)

In the opening scene, set in 1809, on the estate of Sidley Park, a holding of the Coverly family, the two-months-short-of fourteen-year-old Thomasina (a charismatic Kira Patterson, making her professional debut) looks up from her algebra work to ask her tutor, Septimus (Will Madden) about a euphemism she had overheard earlier that morning – “carnal embrace.” A rumor is circulating around the staff that one of the guests, a Mrs. Chater, had been observed in erotic hugging in the gazebo late that night. Given this opening, audience members less familiar with Stoppard’s work might think that Arcadia is going to be a witty sex-farce or comedy of manners after Septimus answers with obfuscatory erudition and then snark and double entendres before Mr. Ezra Chater (a flamboyantly foppish Alexander Platt), a less-than-mediocre poet whose work, Septimus has reviewed, challenges him to a duel — especially when Chater is tempted to overlook the infidelity if it might mean getting a favorable critique, especially given that his last book was panned in an anonymous review.

But this is a Stoppard play and neither he nor his characters limit their captious thoughts to sex and manners. Thomasina has concluded that neither the algebra nor the Newtonian mechanics that Septimus has been teaching her adequately describes the world of nature. “…Why do your equations only describe the shapes of manufacture?” she asks, adding, “Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.” Meanwhile, her mother, the Lady Croom (Sarah Oaks Muirhead), is in discussions with Mr. Noakes (Harsh J. Gagoomal), the landscape designer, about reshaping the bucolically ordered grounds of Sidley Park into a scattered picturesque vision, with ersatz ruins evoking even more ersatz mysteries.

Jump to 1993, where literary scholar, Bernard Nightingale (Ross MacDonald) is pursuing a different mystery. A review copy of Ezra Chater’s Couch of Eros, which Lord Byron had borrowed from Septimus Hodge, has recently come into his hands. In it, there is a signed dedication to Septimus from Chater, as well as correspondence from both Chaters regarding the aforementioned carnal embrace, and the challenge to a duel. Already at work at Sidley Park is another ambitious historian, Hannah Jarvis (a no-nonsense performance from Celeste Oliva), who is researching a history of the gardens. She is pursuing her own thesis about how the landscape reflected a changed in cultural perception. To her, Noakes’ redesign epitomizes the transition between the rationalism of the Enlightenment and emotionalism of the Romantic era. Significantly, Noakes’ design included a hermitage – one inhabited by a genuine hermit who inhabited the park “like a garden gnome.” Who was this hermit, and what is one to make of his eccentric life’s work? Meanwhile, one of the Coverly family – an eccentric mathematician named Valentine (Matthew Zahnzinger) – is engaged in an analysis of the hunting records left by his ancestor, the Lord Croom of the early nineteenth-century.

As the three scholars share their findings, Valentine realizes that Thomasina, had she only had access to digital computing, rather than just pen and paper, would have been on the verge of discovering fractal mathematics and chaos theory, Hannah comes closer to discovering the identity of the Sidley Park Hermit, and Bernard, realizing that Lord Byron had, at least once, visited his Eton college chum, Septimus Hodge, thinks he’s on the verge of making an academic killing and a name for himself.

Bernard convinces himself that both the love notes and the challenges stuffed between the pages of The Couch of Eros were penned for Byron – never once considering that Septimus might have been the true addressee – and, since there were no further volumes of poetry by Ezra Chater, concludes that he must have been killed in a duel with Lord Byron. So it was with blood on his hands that Byron absconded to the continent later that year – a true biographical detail. So convinced, he bypasses traditional peer review and goes straight to the press. It doesn’t matter that his colleagues warn him that the dates don’t line up, or that he is cherry-picking evidence that conforms to his hypothesis. (One can’t help but wonder if Stoppard was sending up critics who insisted his 1982 play The Real Thing was about his relationship with actress Felicity Kendall, even though he hadn’t begun their romantic partnership until 1991.)

MacDonald’s Nightingale is trapped between his flamboyant self-presentation, and his crippling insecurities. He is a dandy desperate to ingratiate himself with the aristocratic Coverly family – indeed, MacDonald, as a British actor, seems acutely aware that his character would be intimidated by the class differences in a way that an American actor (even with a good accent) might not be. But his half-baked hypothesis about Lord Byron isn’t just impatient opportunism meant to impress the higher-ups – he’s doing what writers of pop-biography have long done: disregarding the facts in order to concoct the most exciting story imaginable. He is the fan who cannot stand the notion that the extraordinary Byron did anything that was ordinary. And this mindless hero worship ties in with the larger themes that Stoppard is playing with. Yes, the reiterated algorithms of fractal mathematics allow one to extrapolate the whole from a tiny detail, or a tiny detail from the whole. Still, hypotheses must be tested against the real world: whether through replicable experimentation, naturalistic observation, or careful research of the historical evidence. The phenomenon of entropy proves that structures eventually break down into undifferentiated chaos. Chaos theory teaches that even small, unaccounted for instances can have great, unforeseen consequences. Tea becomes cold; mechanisms malfunction; documents are misplaced; meanings are forgotten; data is erased. And the warm feet of idols inevitably cool off.

The cast

The cast in the Nora Theatre Company production of “Arcadia.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair.

Nora Theatre Company artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner has put together a dazzling production that matches Stoppard’s dazzling script. Her virtuosity in particular evidence in the seventh and final scene when the audience experiences the characters of 1812 and of 1993 sharing the stage for the one and only time; the intermixing without interaction — their dialogue overlapping, waltzing together — is handled with impressive ease. A good dramaturg’s work is usually invisible to audiences –unless something has gone terribly wrong. But in this case the research team, led by Joe Stallone, is in deft command of every detail, from props to the actors’ understanding of the script.

Kira Patterson is a joy as the precociously free-spirited Thomasina, clambering over furniture, dancing and play acting as if every brilliant idea about number and nature must be articulated or acted out immediately. Will Madden strikes a perfect balance with his Septimus; he is the ironic wit who knows his place as an employee of the Coverly household, yet he is ready to test the traditional boundaries by pushing his sex appeal and verbal dexterity. Matthew Zahnzinger also finds ways to make the abstract life of Valentine’s mind concrete, with movements that are both precise yet awkwardly off-putting. There are also notable performances in the supporting roles: Max Jackson as Gus Coverly, the mute embodiment of chaos (Jackson also doubles as his ancestor and namesake Augustus in the final scene), and Elbert Joseph as the Coverly family’s butler, his highly stylized strides, bows, and whimsical vocabulary of ‘secret’ gestures reflecting the various upstairs/downstairs languages of the house.

Choreographer Judith Chafee deserves considerable credit for crafting the powerful use of movement in this production, and she also achieves subtle effects in the final scene, where waltzing couples, dancing one-hundred-and-eighty-one years apart, suggest reiterated algorithms shifting into a melancholic sync.

All of these complex movements of people, objects, and ideas takes place on the fine set designed by Janie E. Howland. She hews closely to the room described in Stoppard’s script but has added just beyond the French windows a gigantic rough sketch of Sidley Park as it was in 1809 – as if to remind us of Hannah’s contention that the quintessential English landscape was the creation of gardeners imitating painters who were reflecting literary ideals.

Of course, Stoppard’s Arcadia is structured like a fractal, with its own nimbly reiterated themes, but its jagged shape, like the fractured obelisk stuck in Noakes’ reimagined Sidley Park, suggests the ‘snake’ of entropy in the plush paradise of order. For Stoppard, the world winds up and then it winds down — and both actions are brought to vibrant life in this production.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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