Depth of talent both onstage and behind the scenes is showcased in Theatre South Carolina's production of Sir Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, running now through Saturday at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre. Often hailed as the most important work from one of the giants of contemporary theatre, Arcadia is both witty and cerebral, tackling esoteric issues through the seemingly frivolous interactions of some very eloquent, highly intellectual characters. It takes a lot of concentration to follow and fully appreciate every issue raised, and something will almost certainly go over the head of any given audience member, but the comedy and conflict of the ostensible plot, and more importantly how they're presented by some extremely capable MFA students, makes this a worthwhile endeavor for enthusiasts of drama, literature, and even physics and mathematics.
You'd be reading this a day or two sooner if I hadn't found myself attempting again and again to summarize what the play is about, and failing each time. Ultimately Arcadia is a play of abstract ideas, but I must stress that it's also rather enjoyable just as a surface comedy of manners. That surface plot alternates from 1809 to the present day in parallel scenes set at Sidely Park, the expansive estate of the Coverly family. In 1809, aristocrats and poets (including an unseen Lord Byron) engage in flirtations and assignations; two centuries later, modern scholars attempt to unravel some of the secrets from that past via varying methodologies, and with varying success. Especially in the first act, Stoppard recreates the erudite, droll banter that we associate with 19th- century wits like Wilde and Shaw.
James Costello, as tutor Septimus Hodge, is perhaps best among the "historical" cast at capturing the affected manner and flowing speech of an earlier era, and his curly hair and rakish sideburns fit his character perfectly. He gets some of the play's biggest laughs, as when a jealous husband (an underused Josiah Laubenstein) demands satisfaction, and he notes that the wife in question required the same. Melissa Reed, as precocious Thomasina, is a bundle of academic genius, ladylike manners, scientific curiosity, and teenage hormones. While a freshman actor could have been cast to signify Thomasina's youth, Reed is fairly petite, and has the mannerisms of a young teen down pat, so the audience benefits from the skills and insight of an adult convincingly playing a child. Kate Dzvonik, as Thomasina's imperious mother, is a younger, sexier Lady Bracknell, as if played by a Dynasty-era Joan Collins. Dzvonik's bio indicates that she is a native of Kazakhstan, and you definitely realize that this isn't a British accent you hear, but the character is fairly blustery and histrionic, so Dzvonik wisely takes her time enunciating each word with precision. It's not a big issue, and who's to say that Lady Croom wasn't raised by some great-aunt in the court of Catherine the Great? Make sure you follow everything she says, however, because hidden in her rants are some important plot details that re-surface later.
Among the modern day cast, Leeanna Goldstein Rubin commands the stage with a serene, nearly-unflappable stage presence as Hannah, a writer researching the estate's history as it pertains to literary figures. Cory Lipman, as Thomasina's many-generations-removed relative Valentine, perfectly embodies a man of science whose passion for learning encompasses far more than sterile numbers. Laurie Roberts portrays Val's nubile sister Chloe, a young woman of great intellect and perception who makes valid points about the unpredictable nature of human sexuality and attraction as a variable in any attempt to quantify human behavior. Chloe’s interest goes far beyond the academic or theoretical, however; her observations add an important dimension to an ongoing debate in both time periods about the nature of science and order, but the character is somewhat underwritten, and Roberts uses every trick in the actor's hat, from enticing poses to suggestive glances to a sensuous sashay, to enhance her every moment on stage. Don't discount her dialogue, however, just because it's funny and provocative - as with Chloe's ancestor Lady Croom, much of Stoppard's themes are hidden somewhere in there. I'll leave it to women in the audience, and especially feminists, to decide if her performance is a little too over the top. Speaking for myself only, I found her to be delightful, and would be quite happy to re-watch her performance on some continuous loop. Although this may not actually have anything to do with the play.
Trey Hobbs, as ambitious academic Bernard, has grown as a performer since doing a decent job in reasons to be pretty three years ago at Trustus. He is the antagonist for the nominal plot: he's attempting to "prove" that Lord Byron killed another poet in a duel at Sidely Hall, while the audience sees the actual events transpire in flashback scenes. His role is the least sympathetic, but with the most lines, and Hobbs manages to impress as an actor while depicting a less than impressive character. He and the other principals are all second-year MFA students, and have played the leads in most of USC's mainstage productions over the last year. As a group, they're an impressive lot, with Rubin and Reed amazingly different from their roles as Lear's evil daughters last spring. Scenic design is by Xuemei Cao, with costume design by Sean Smith, both also MFA candidates, and their work is as good as it gets in Columbia. While probably based on the original design from the UK and Broadway, the set is simultaneously elegant yet minimalist, while the costumes look as if they came from real people's closets, reflecting individual styles and fashion sense. A straw hat worn by Rubin immediately reminds us that a vast (and unseen) country estate stretches outside, while narrow bootleg slacks worn by Lipman define him visually as a hip, contemporary post-grad. Richly colorful lighting effects, by faculty member Eric Morris, subtly shift from sky-blue to twilight-violet in the distance, indicating passage of time.
If you still aren't quite sure what the play concerns, you aren't alone. Armed with a love of Stoppard (I chose his early hit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for term paper topics in both high school and college) and a thorough study of both the advance press material and the director's guest blog, I still struggled to follow particular references and plot points, or absence thereof, no matter how skillfully the actors prformed the work. Eventually I had to sit down and read the play itself, as well as a couple of essays on its meaning and significance. Guest director Louis Butelli surely realized the material's inherent challenges, and his cast emotes and declaims the wordy text as if they're doing Shakespeare in the Park. They really do knock themselves out, ensuring that the audience has a good time even if a few things are lost in the shuffle, but I'm not sure that it was necessary. (At intermission, a friend and lifelong theatre enthusiast asked "Why are they all shouting?")
One critic wrote of this work that it is easy to admire, but hard to love, and I can understand that. Stoppard wants to present a comprehensive world view that encompasses both the sciences and humanities. At one point Thomasina perhaps speaks for the author when she observes that mathematics can define a curve like a bell, so why not like a bluebell, and then why not a rose? Septimus adds another important point, that knowledge can never be truly lost, since it will ultimately be rediscovered in some fashion, while both Hannah and Valentine suggest that the details are less important than the actual search for knowledge; with the present day characters' research into the lives of their predecessors forming the storyline, we see these theories play out before us as they are proven true. Bernard's suppositions fall flat, while surprisingly, a tragic, doomed romance is revealed, although never seen. While everything from chaos theory, fractals, and thermodynamics, to the transition from the Classical to the Romantic Periods (in everything from poetry to landscaping) is fodder for discussion and analysis, I found myself wishing that there had been some greater revelation or conclusion, or a more dramatic and engaging resolution for the main characters in each era. Four of Stoppard's works have won Tony Awards for Best Play, and many have enjoyed long runs on Broadway; Arcadia only ran for a few months, and lost the Tony to Love! Valour! Compassion! (also an enjoyable work, but not necessarily the greatest drama ever.) However admired it may be, critical reception has always been mixed. And it runs close to three hours with intermission added in. But that's the material. This production, and these supremely gifted MFA students, do a great job.
By the time you read this, there will be only four more performances: Thursday and Friday nights at 8 PM, and Saturday at both 7 and, believe it or not, 11 PM. (One wonders if the script's cosmic implications and shifts in time might be impaired or enhanced by an altered state of consciousness.) Is it for the general public? Well, probably not. Arcadia is a thoughtful and thought-provoking play, for people who want to be challenged while they are entertained. But you absolutely won't see anything like this anywhere else in town, and as above, performances and production values are excellent. Call the box office at 777-2551 or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/2014/arcadia.html for ticket information.
~ August Krickel