SEEKING KNOWLEDGE IN “ARCADIA”
Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, directed by Cynthia Meier, presented by The Rogue Theatre, January 9 – 26, 2014 at The Historic Y, 300 E. University Boulevard, Tucson.
An arts reviewer has a relatively easy task these days because any internet search will instantly (actually, in less than an instant) answer one’s quest for facts – plot, characters, a playwright’s history (education, awards, bibliography, height, weight, dates of marriages, children’s names, languages spoken, record of travel, color of hair, high school photos, etc.).
And with this play, Arcadia, the quest for facts is significant. It lies at the heart of conflicts and rivalries, mutual interests, gossip, literary sleuthing, and genuine intellectual curiosity. With the very first words, spoken by Thomasina, an engaging young teenager, we hear curiosity as well as the humor of Tom Stoppard’s text: she asks for a definition of “carnal knowledge”, and in his embarrassment her tutor, Septimus Hodge, diverges to a Latinate response about embracing “a side of beef.”
It is fortunate that the play opens with a focus on Thomasina Coverly because in this production Gabriella De Brequet gives a stellar performance in the role of the young genius who is studying mathematics and physics while also observing the nuances of relationships and sexual play among the adults. The portrayal here is a charming balance of naïveté and awareness.
Time plays a significant role in Arcadia, which takes place in alternating scenes both in early 19th century (the time of the Romantics) and in late 20th century (our modern times), but in the same physical space—a room in an English country house. The same themes—as mentioned above—are played out in overlaid variations.
The simplicity of the set—a long library table before a large opaque window—allows focus on the lively dialogue, for these are characters enamored with words. Its simplicity also invites imagination in response to discussion of grand plans for the gardens with a “hermitage” centerpiece, reminding us of changing aesthetics of formal design vs. natural wildness.
Some dialogue between Hannah Jarvis, a character whose interest is literature and who is played with appropriate verve and self-confidence by Patty Gallagher, and Valentine Cloverly, a young man absorbed in mathematics and played by Matt Bowdren, is reminiscent of the famous lecture by C. P. Snow called “The Two Cultures,” in which he pits knowledge (or ignorance) of science versus the arts. Perhaps Stoppard had Snow’s theories in mind, since he mentions some of the same tropes, such as using the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an example, and peopling his stage with poets and literary researchers as well as mathematicians.
In the 20th century scenes, Bernard Nightingale, played by Joseph McGrath in yet another fine performance, provides entertainment and counterpoint as a rakish, self-aggrandizing scholar who has a slanderous theory he is trying to prove.
Stoppard’s plays are much about the interplay of “objective” and “subjective” experience, and in the tangled mesh that is Arcadia, cosmic and comic scenes collide. As elsewhere, the playwright employs the device of absence, for two characters much talked about never appear on stage—Lord Byron (the poet) and Mrs. Chater (wife of a minor poet whom she cuckolds).
But the characters we do see are well cast and all bring a high level of energy that sustains the literary and intellectual dialogue as well as flirtatious banter. Several of the actors are regulars in The Rogue Theatre company, and have appeared in previous productions in this “Season of Lust”. In addition to individuals already mentioned, these include Ryan Parker Knox, David Morden, Lee Rayment, David Greenwood, and Kathryn Kellner Brown. It is good to see three fresh young actors joining the troupe—Gabriella De Brequet, Holly Griffith, and Dustin Rieffer.
Music performed on the piano by Sara M. Tobe provided a mood-setting prelude to the evening, together with a warm welcome from Cynthia Meier, managing and associate artistic director of The Rogue Theatre and director of this fine production.
Reviewed by: David Ray and Judy Ray
© copyright 2014
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