For the sake of full disclosure, I think it is important that I tell you of my first experience with Tom Stoppard’s enigmatic and beautiful work. I saw the original production of Arcadia in London. It was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of my life; love at first sight. A college girl, drunk on the incredible theatrical life of that city, I was swept away by the complexity and genius of the work. To this day, it stands in my memory as one of those unrivalled magical moments in the theater. The play, written by Tom Stoppard in 1993, is dense and brilliant, filled with an intricately woven conversation about art and science, creation and creativity, love and loss. The production, in my rosy memory, was flawless and stunning.
If I do not gush over The Austin Shakespeare’s current production of this astonishing play, take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt; this is the first production of Arcadia I have seen since that first love. There is no true fault I can find with the production. Every aspect of the play is well constructed, the lighting and set design is dynamic and effective, the performances are nuanced, endearing, even delightful. If the play failed to evoke in me the sense of wonder and amazement that I remember from my first experience, I strongly suspect the fault is in me. My expectation that it could rekindle that moment of magic for me was unreasonable; the task is an impossible one. The first time the secrets of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia unfurl before you is a once in a lifetime experience.
Arcadia is set in a grand solar of an English estate. In Ia Enstera’s minimalist design, a wall of leaded glass opens onto a stark blue sky. The stage, a massive stretch of hardwood floor, is dominated by an equally massive dining table, lightly covered in ancient books and antique instruments of science and the arts. Two world’s mix in this grand open space. The play is set in both 1809 and the present day, and the story weaves back and forth between these two times.
At the heart of the play is the precocious Thomasina (Georgia McLeland) and her voluptuous tutor Septimus Hodge (Collin Bjork). Georgia’s Thomasina is at first wild and distracted but grows into a strong young woman. Collin’s Septimus flits and plays, seems shallow and even callous in his pursuit of pleasure, but reveals a depth which is intriguing. Stoppard wastes no time in establishing their relationship or his theme, as the two immediately launch into a merry conversation about the meaning of carnal knowledge. Student and teacher are well matched in their verbal flirtations; each is quick witted, with dexterous reason. While the teacher plays delightful games with truth in his hesitation to relieve the girl of her ignorance, she shows her intellect a match to his by reasoning it out of him, much to her dismay.
As Septimus and Thomasina's story unfolds, the room also buzzes with the life of modern times. In the present day, the estate is filled with scholars seeking to unravel the mysteries of this past era. The sensualist Bernard Nightingale (Shelby Davenport) is on the hunt for the sensational truth behind Lord Byron's flight from England. A scientist, the estate heir Valentine Coverley (Philip Kreyche), is immersed in theory and mathematics in his study of grouse. Caught between them is the sharp and determined Hannah Jarvis (Liz Beckham). Hanna has been drawn to this estate because of an event which occured in 1809. That year, the elegant and structured gardens of the Coverley estate had been plowed under to make way for manufactured ruins and mossy grottos of the new romantic style. As Liz's Hannah works to show how Romanticism destroyed Reason through the metaphor of the English garden, we see a battle within her between the evidence based reason she has chosen and the hopeful romantic nature she has been given.
The real magic of the play, of course, is that it is working away on you at so many levels. The plot, it might be said, is insignificant, yet every point of it is meticulously crafted to Stoppard’s purpose. Each era has its secrets to reveal and it takes both halves of this equation to reveal the significance of the whole. The program from the original production contain's this dramaturgical note, "Classical and Romantic. Our urge to divide, counter-balance and classify has never, perhaps, produced two denominations which work so suggestively over the infinite terrian of human expression. In speaking of Classical and Romantic. . . we balance reason against imagination, logic against emotion, geometry against nature, formality against spontaneity, discretion against valour. . ." In Arcadia, Stoppard lays down an argument that it is the dance of these two natures which is the essence of humanity. In the theories of the scholars, in the discoveries of the pupil, in the design of the garden, in the trists and the duels, in every aspect of every moment of the play and in the very relationship of these moments to one another, Stoppard examines the relation of these two denominations. As grand a theme as it is, the play is so much more than that. It is sublime geometry, a meditation on divinity from a scientific perspective. . . perhaps I do gush!
I had my new love moment with Arcadia in London. I hope a new generation will come along and feel that first blush of passion for themselves. Arcadia will run at the Long Center’s Rollins Studio through February 19th. If you have never seen Arcadia, I urge you to go. From what I saw on opening night, I am confident you will not be disappointed, and I even suspect you may fall in love yourself. In fact, I am willing to try for love again and I am going to head back to the theater tonight for a second date.