A time-tripping masterpiece in a dazzling new home
|Writers Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Chaos and love – the latter causes the former. One need look no further than Newton to see that’s so. The law of attraction is the one law Newton overlooked. And it’s the law that throws the determinate universe into disorder. So explains Tom Stoppard’s dazzling masterpiece Arcadia, a time-tripping drama that’s as mind-blowing as the Enlightenment and as passionate as the Romantic era that followed.
In Writers Theatre’s sumptuous revival, Arcadia shows how love is the great undo-er of universal order. It is what turns the beautiful, algebraic symmetry of perfectly sloping hills and meticulously sculpted gardens into gothic landscapes where hobgoblins lurk in murky bogs.
Directed by Michael Halberstam, Arcadia marks a new era for the Glencoe theater. The opening of Stoppard’s intricate collision of eros, literature and metaphysics is also the opening of Writers’ new multi-million dollar theater. Lady Croom (Chaon Cross), mistress of the elegant English estate where Arcadia unfolds, would surely approve of the new venue’s graceful lines and airy interior.
Arcadia is a triumph on multiple levels: It’s a celebration of the sumptuous new space and a crackling fine swath of storytelling. Set in 1809-10 and the early 1990s, Arcadia drives home both the fleeting nature of human life and the ephemeral nature of art. The drama explains why the universe is ultimately unexplainable. It also offers a magnificent testament to legacies that endure, long after their creators are swirling dust.
Plot summation is fairly futile with Arcadia. It’s easier to explain the third law of thermodynamics or the infinite possibilities of iterated algorithms than it is to distill the events of Stoppard’s drama into a tidy synopsis. The piece is set in the Coverly estate, in a tastefully appointed room dominated by a lengthy harvest table, stacks of books and papers, and a turtle who serves as a whimsical, silent bridge between centuries.
The story has to do with a 19th century murder mystery wrapped around a literary mystery wrapped around an outbreak of carnal embrace. In the 1990s scenes, Stoppard reveals the clues left behind. These include a dahlia, a rabid monkey, and a trio of urgent notes hinting at illicit affairs under the Coverly roof. There is also a mysterious hermit involved, a beautiful young girl who was either a genius or insane or both, and the thrilling possibility that the great poet Lord Byron shot a man at dawn one misty morning. In the 19th century, Stoppard gradually reveals the truth embedded in the clues bedeviling those in the 20th century. He also points out the folly of those who would presume to fully understand what transpired long ago.
Stoppard connects the centuries in ways both subtle and overt. There’s that turtle, for starters. Throughout, there’s also an almost otherworldy funneling of past and future. The two spin together like DNA strands. In the final, gorgeous scene, the spirals are eerily inseparable.
Halberstam’s cast is up to the daunting demands of Stoppard’s intricacies. The plot’s brilliant vortex begins with Thomasina (Elizabeth Stenholt), the precocious teenage student of Septimus Hodge (Greg Matthew Anderson). When Thomasina weeps for the lost libraries of Alexandria, you’ll feel the loss in your gut. So too, when Septimus explains that nothing is ever lost forever, and then proceeds to explain precisely why this is so. In Anderson’s knowing, understated delivery, that inarguable explanation is cause for joy.
Anderson’s Septimus is more than an astute educator. He’s also a man who pines for love and relishes the aforementioned carnal embrace. The latter paves the way for a hilarious scene with the cuckolded Ezra Chatter (a vainglorious puff pastry of a man hilariously played by Rod Thomas). The former brings Septimus both happiness and sorrow, and each is evident in Anderson’s enticing performance.
When the action moves to the 1990s, we meet the modern-day Coverlys. Chloe (Callie Johnson) veritably glows with heat and sexuality, especially when Byron scholar Bernard Nightingale (Scott Parkinson) shows up. Parkinson’s Nightingale embodies the character’s ridiculously showy name. Nightingale is a sight more intelligent than the blustering Ezra Chater, but he’s the man’s spiritual descendent nonetheless. In the the Coverly library, Nightingale is certain he’s made a discovery that will be to literary scholars what King Tut’s tomb was to Egyptologists and that will make him a star. He’s an attack of schadenfreude just waiting to happen, and when it does, it’s utterly delicious.
Hannah Jarvis (Kate Fry) is also in residence at the Coverly Estate, researching the mystery of the hermit and crafting a thesis that shows how trends in landscape architecture are verdant, vast metaphors for the end of the. Enlightenment Era and the rise of the Romantic Era. Fry’s Hannah is as fascinating as she is witty, and her passion for unveiling the identity of that hermit is infectious. Her theory is ingeniously illustrated in 1809, via the drawings of landscape architecture Richard Noakes’ (Gabriel Ruiz, making you wish Noakes’ had a bit more stage time). That Noakes gives voice to Hannah’s thesis more than a century before her birth is one of the intriguing delights of Arcardia and yet another memorable merger of past and present.
Also fascinating is Valentine Coverly (Christopher Sheard), a brilliant statistician who makes a stunning discovery in the Coverlys meticulous “game books” – records of how many hare and grouse shot on the estate dating back centuries. When Valentine breaks down over the sheer amount of “noise” one has to wade through to get to the truth of the matter, It’s a universal depiction of all the world’s frustrations, be they tied to love or scholarship.
Stoppard eventually solves the mysteries enthralling the denizens of Arcadia, and reconciles them in that extraordinary final moment when – as in Noakes’ drawings – illustrates how the past, the present and the future inextricably bleed together.
Collette Pollard’s set design captures the upscale, spare beauty of a centuries’-old estate in the English countryside. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes do likewise: They’re accurate without being showy, especially in that final, twirling union of eras. Joshua Schmidt ’s sound design is equally evocative, merging from the delicately ordered harmonies of the early 19th century to the roaring thrall of 20th century rock.
Arcadia will leave your head spinning. In the best possible way.
Arcadia continues through May 1st at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm & 6pm. Tickets are $35-$80, and are available by phone (847-242-6000) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at WritersTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Greg Matthew Anderson (Septimus Hodge), Chaon Cross (Lady Croom), Kate Fry (Hannah Jarvis), Torrey Hanson (Jellaby), Nathan Hosner (Capt. Brice, RN), Callie Johnson (Chloë Coverly), Scott Parkinson (Bernard Nightingale), Gabriel Ruiz (Richard Noakes), Alistair Sewell (Gus Coverly, Agustus Coverly), Christopher Sheard (Valentine Coverly), Elizabeth Stenholt (Thomasina Coverly), Rod Thomas (Ezra Chater), C. Jaye Miller, Patrick Rooney, Brandon Dahlquist, Lance Baker, McKinley Carter, Ben Barker (understudies)
behind the scenes
Michael Halberstam (director), Collette Pollard (scenic design), Rachel Anne Healy (costume design), John Culbert (lighting design, original music), Josh Schmidt (sound design), David Castellanos (stage manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Scott Dickens (dramaturg), Scott Dickens (props master), Karen Janes Woditsch (asst. director), Elise Hausken (asst. stage manager), Elise Hausken (scene shop), Caleb McAndrew (technical supervisor), Jane Heuer (wardrobe supervisor), Emily Waecker (costume supervisor), Simon Robinson (master electrician), Amanda Hosking (sound engineer), Michael Brosilow (photos).