Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries - a review of "Arcadia" at USC's Drayton Hall

Pictured, from left: James Costello, Melissa Reed, Leeanna Rubin, Trey Hobbs Caption: Theatre SC presents Tom Stoppard’s award-winning Arcadia, a witty and hilarious  intellectual puzzle about the unquenchable thirst for knowledge, September 27 - October 5 at  Drayton Hall Theatre.  Set at an English manor in both the early 19th century and present day,  Arcadia introduces us to two groups of characters -- the property’s original residents and a  modern-day band of scholars trying to unearth their forebears’ hidden secrets.  “... one of the most  exquisite plays of the 20th century” (The Independent).   Photographer: Jason Ayer 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.

arcadia-3.jpg Pictured, from left: James Costello, Melissa Reed Caption: Septimus (James Costello) tutors precocious child-genius Thomasina (Melissa Reed)  while trying to avoid a scandalous confrontation in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, presented by Theatre  SC September 27 - October 5 at Drayton Hall Theatre.  Photographer: Jason Ayer

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.

arcadia-2.jpg Pictured, from left: Leeanna Rubin, Trey Hobbs Caption: Two present-day scholars, Hannah (Leeanna Rubin) and Bernard (Trey Hobbs), try to  uncover the intellectual truths (and possibly scandalous secrets) of a 19th century manor in Tom  Stoppard’s Arcadia, presented by Theatre SC at Drayton Hall Theatre September 27 - October 5.   Photographer: Jason Ayer

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

Directing Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" at USC - a guest blog by Louis Butelli

So, here I am, about to eat dinner at Al-Amir restaurant in beautiful downtown Columbia, and prepare for one last, pre-tech run-through of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia with the company of actors and artists at USC’s Theatre SC.  We’ve been on quite a journey to get to this point. Having spent weeks reading, studying, and blocking the play in a rehearsal hall, and then having spent this week on stage at Drayton Hall as the set grew up around us, we are now on the verge of sharing this play with the public. As the show’s director, I couldn’t be more excited. arcadia-3.jpg Pictured, from left: James Costello, Melissa Reed Caption: Septimus (James Costello) tutors precocious child-genius Thomasina (Melissa Reed)  while trying to avoid a scandalous confrontation in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, presented by Theatre  SC September 27 - October 5 at Drayton Hall Theatre.  Photographer: Jason Ayer

A little bit of background. I’ve been working as an actor, director, educator, and writer for the past 17 years. Back in 1998, I booked a job as an actor for a touring Shakespeare company which, at the time, was in residence at USC. For a couple of years, we would come to Columbia to rehearse, and then open our shows at the Koger Center before taking them all over the country. Those early years were very happy times, and it was through working for this company that I met director Robert Richmond, with whom I have continued to collaborate ever since, frequently at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC, where we have broken attendance and box office records, and been nominated for (and won!) several Helen Hayes Awards.

Here in Columbia, Robert and I created a theater piece based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, called A Tale Told By An Idiot. A comic book-inspired mash-up of the Scottish play with the story of original English terrorist Guy Fawkes, it played at USC’s Lab Theater on Wheat Street, and featured the talents of USC undergraduate theater students. People loved it. Some years later, I founded a theater company, Psittacus Productions, in Los Angeles and chose A Tale Told By An Idiot as our inaugural show. Robert came out to direct, we opened as part of the first annual Hollywood Fringe Festival, then transferred to the Son Of Semele Ensemble Theater, where we sold out and extended. The press was excellent, and we received an LA Weekly Theatre Award for our efforts.

My point in all of this is that, for the past fifteen years, I have felt a deep connection to USC, to Theatre SC, and to the great city of Columbia. When department Chair Jim Hunter invited me back down to direct Arcadia, I jumped at the opportunity.

For me, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a very special play. To begin, it appeals to two very distinct parts of who I am, both as an artist and as a human being, about which more will follow.

arcadia-2.jpg Pictured, from left: Leeanna Rubin, Trey Hobbs Caption: Two present-day scholars, Hannah (Leeanna Rubin) and Bernard (Trey Hobbs), try to  uncover the intellectual truths (and possibly scandalous secrets) of a 19th century manor in Tom  Stoppard’s Arcadia, presented by Theatre SC at Drayton Hall Theatre September 27 - October 5.   Photographer: Jason Ayer

In the play, we encounter two sets of characters inhabiting the same drawing room in anestate on the English countryside. The first set is living in the year 1809. We meet a brilliant 13-year old girl, her randy tutor, her elegant mother, and various hangers-on. The whole household is scandalized – one of the guests, a minor poet, has been cuckolded by the tutor. There are allegations, handwritten challenges to duels, love notes passed, all while the young girl makes an important mathematical discovery, many years before the rest of the world would catch up. Additionally, everyone is in a tizzy because of a visit from that most famous of Romantics, Lord Byron, who is lurking, offstage, throughout the show.

The second set of characters live in the year 2013 – or, at least, in “the present day.” Here on the estate, we meet the noble descendants of the family from 1809. There are three siblings – a twenty-something male who is an Oxfordian mathematician, a saucy teenaged girl, and a fifteen-year-old boy who hasn’t spoken since age 5. Visiting the family, to research her next book, is a thirty-something author. Into this idyll charges a hotheaded, fame-hungry professor in his late thirties. He believes he is on the verge of a new discovery that will shake the foundations of English literary studies, particularly on the subject of Lord Byron. Gradually, the artifacts left behind from 1809 start showing up in 2013, and we watch the present day characters getting quite a few of the details wrong…while inching ever closer to the truth.

Pictured, from left: James Costello, Melissa Reed, Leeanna Rubin, Trey Hobbs Caption: Theatre SC presents Tom Stoppard’s award-winning Arcadia, a witty and hilarious  intellectual puzzle about the unquenchable thirst for knowledge, September 27 - October 5 at  Drayton Hall Theatre.  Set at an English manor in both the early 19th century and present day,  Arcadia introduces us to two groups of characters -- the property’s original residents and a  modern-day band of scholars trying to unearth their forebears’ hidden secrets.  “... one of the most  exquisite plays of the 20th century” (The Independent).   Photographer: Jason Ayer

Certainly, the play is populated by very intelligent, hyper-articulate people, who spend quite a lot of time talking – about theory, about math, about landscape gardening, about art, about poetry. More interestingly, though, they also discover that no matter how sure one may seem about their place in the world, it is love – and lust, and the terrifying un-knowability of other people – that throws a wrench in the works every time. As the mathematician Valentine says in the play, these things are “the attraction that Newton left out.” They are the flies in the ointment of a deterministic universe governed by “free will.”

As I said, this appeals to me personally in two ways. First of all, I am a pretty huge nerd. I love teasing apart big ideas. I love intellectual sparring and heated conversation. I love to read, and I love to research. That said, I am also an actor and a flesh and blood male. As follows, I also love the irrational. I know what it is to feel swept up with passion. I know what it is to run away with the circus. This play presses both of those buttons for me, and I hope that it will for you, too.

“Well, good for him,” you might think in reading along. “But so what?”

My point, I suppose, is to say that, in coming to direct this play – or, in fact, any play – one must find a point of entry. One must attempt to answer the question “why produce this play, and why now?” In the current climate of economic fragility, global unrest, mass shootings, a shrill and polarized news media, and a deadlocked government, why would one choose to put on a play that is simultaneously a “big idea” play, and a classic English farce?

There are two potential ways of answering that question, one of which is complex, and one of which is…less complex.

The complex, or at least the “literary” answer goes something like this: Stoppard, particularly in this play, reminds me of two literary titans from the history of drama, Shakespeare and Chekov. To be a bit reductive, both of those playwrights were conversant in creating drama during times of – and through the lens of – great social upheaval. Shakespeare wrote sprawling, imaginative plays against the backdrop of Elizabethan England, a place full of religious conflict, wars against the Spanish, bouts of plague, and a linguistic explosion. Chekov wrote stories about families languishing at a remove from society and, ultimately falling apart, in the years directly preceding the Russian Revolution. Both playwrights are concerned with people wrestling with lofty ideas while simultaneously unable to escape some of the baser parts of their own humanity.

At nine years old, Stoppard, a Jewish, Czech national, moved to England with his mother and English stepfather who, according to the stories once said to young Tom, “Don’t you realize I made you British?” Having been displaced by World War II, and having embraced England, and indeed Englishness, Stoppard has created a literary world that is characterized by rapid-fire wit, philosophizing, and issues of human rights, censorship, and political freedom. And sex.

As for his literary debt to Chekov, one might consider his play cycle, “The Coast of Utopia, which addresses social philosophy in pre-Revolutionary Russia and won the Tony Award for Best Play. As far as Shakespeare goes, I suggest that one re-watch the movie Shakespeare In Love, for which Stoppard won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Intimidated yet? I certainly was!

Here’s the less complex answer. This play is really, really fun. Yes, it’s very talky. Yes, it’s very heavy on ideas. Yes, it isn’t packed with a huge amount of “event.” Sounds a bit like an episode of Seinfeld, no?

Seriously, though. When I think about the question of “why this play, and why now?” I keep returning to the Internet. One of the things that sets our little moment on earth apart from any other throughout all of history is the presence of the Internet – not just in our lives, but in our pockets, and on our nightstands, 24 hours a day, every single day.

When I think of my own propensity to click along, chasing a notion or idea from link to link, from graphic to video to article to image, ad nauseum – it reminds me of following Tom Stoppard’s characters as one idea leads to the next, and we bounce between 1809 and the present day, until those worlds collide and overlap in the last scene of the play.

And yet…this is a piece of theater. For me, what the theater does, that no other art form does, is bring a whole bunch of strangers together in real time, under one roof, to trade these ideas with artists themselves. We’re all breathing the same air. You can see and hear us, to be certain. But we can also see and hear you. You impact our performance. Moreover, without you, we simply couldn’t make this work of art come to life at all. In short, theater, by its very definition, needs you to be there with us.

I suppose that’s a really long-winded way of gently pleading with you to buy a ticket to see our show. We’ve all become sort of fascinated by the weird, time-traveling world of this play, and have started seeing little idea nuggets from this play everywhere we look – be it noticing the way the beautiful tendrils of milk stir into uniform color and heat in a coffee at Cool Beans, or the way the tree trunks extend to branches and into leaves and into veins-in-leaves ad infinitum while strolling along the Horseshoe.

You might like our show, or you might find it a spectacular bore. Regardless: if we can all share a few laughs, and you come away with some food for thought, and some things you might want to chat about with friends afterwards, or Google when you get home, then the experiment was worthwhile.

Won’t you come experiment with us?

To close, I’ll just say that working on this play has made me obsessed with fractals. I’m not a good enough writer to unpack fractal theory here, so I’ve included a link to a video animation (click HERE.)  In short, fractals are at the heart of the theory that our 13-year old girl discovers in 1809, and that our mathematician in 2013 extrapolates.

The video is another metaphor for Arcadia. Sometimes seeing a thing unfold makes more intuitive sense than hearing some nerdy director talk about it. So, click this link, and watch this video animation of fractals. If it exhilarates you, then you should definitely come and see our show.

Thanks for reading! See you at the theater!

 

~ Louis Butelli

Louis Butelli

Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Louis has spent the past seventeen years working as an actor, teacher, director, and writer. From 1998-2008, he was Artist-In-Residence and Company Clown for the Aquila Theatre Company. During that time, he played in over 25 productions of the works of William Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, appearing Off-Broadway, at major regional houses, on tour in the US to 49 states and across Europe; taught over 300 masterclasses; wrote, adapted and appeared in a new production of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Other credits include Folger Theatre; La Jolla Playhouse; LA Shakespeare Festival; Shakespeare Theatre Co, DC; Alabama Shakespeare Festival; Yale Rep; Long Wharf; Orlando Shakes; Pasadena Playhouse; Two River Theater, NJ; Alpine Theater Project, MT; Seaside Shakespeare of Nantucket; La Scala Opera’s West Side Story in Milan, Beirut, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo; many others. TV: The Unusuals, and All My Children (ABC), Law & Order, and L&O: Criminal Intent (NBC). He is co-founder and Executive Director of Psittacus Productions, for whom he has produced A Tale Told By An Idiot (LA Weekly Theater Award), and CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera (NYMF Award for Excellence, 3 LA Weekly Award Nominations, Pulitzer Prize Juror Nominee) which played a sold-out and extended run at the 2011 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and the World Premier of the company’s latest show, A True History, which had a workshop at the Obie Award-winning Vineyard Theatre in New York City. He is honored every day he is able to go to work in the service of a great story.

Arcadia opens Friday, September 27 at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre, and runs through Saturday, October 5.   Show times for Arcadia are 8 PM Wednesdays-Fridays, 7 PM Saturdays and 3 PM on the first Sunday. Tickets for the production are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military personnel and seniors 60+, and $18 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30 -5:30 PM.  Drayton Hall Theatre is located at 1214 College St.  For more information, contact  Kevin Bush at 803-777-9353, or bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.

Cast in this production are graduate acting students James Costello, Kate Dzvonik, Trey Hobbs, Josiah Laubenstein, Cory Lipman, Melissa Reed, Laurie Roberts and Leeanna Rubin, as well as undergraduate students Jason Fernandes, Grayson Garrick and Liam MacDougall.  Acting instructor David Britt will also appear in the production.   Graduate students Xuemei Cao and Sean Smith will design the set and costumes, respectively.   Guest artist Baxter Engle will create the sound design.  Instructor Eric Morris will design lighting.  Guest artist Todd Stuart will craft the show's intricate props.