Saturday, April 6, 2019

Theatre AUM: "Arcadia"

When Tom Stoppard wrote Arcadia in 1993, he had garnered a reputation for audacious intellectual wordplay, an amusing playfulness, and a penchant for including esoteric subjects in his comedies. Starting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) that made him an overnight success, he continues to this day to impress theatregoers with verbal dexterity and complicated plots.

Arcadia not only has two interconnected stories alternately playing on the same set in two different time periods, it is concerned with such subjects as thermodynamics, chaos theory, landscape gardening, history, and literary scholarship. All in pursuit of figuring out how the past and the present serve to bring order out of disorder.

An ambitious undertaking for Theatre AUM. Director Mike Winkelman has a fine ensemble of actors at his disposal (AUM undergraduates, alumni, and faculty) in a production that opened on Thursday night to a large responsive audience.

The setting is a garden room in an English country estate called Sidley Park, and the time alternates between 1809 and 1995; and Stoppard centers a large table that serves both time periods where most of the action occurs.

In 1809, precocious young Thomasina Coverly [Grace Moore] is being tutored by Septimus Hodge [Jacob Holmberg], and though her insights into algebra, physics, and the natural world are far more sophisticated than her years, she is also curious about the sexual goings-on at the estate among the adults: especially Septimus and family guests -- the unsuccessful poet Ezra Chater [Tony George], his cuckolding never on-stage wife, and also unseen Lord Byron. Thomasina's stern yet flirtatious  mother Lady Croom [Alex Ricard] and her officious brother Captain Brice [Jay Russell] rule the roost so-to-speak, while bumbling gardener Richard Noakes [Cushing Phillips] convinces Lady Croom to allow him to transform the old-fashioned estate from the classical Arcadian to the then popular Gothic style. Thomasina's younger brother Augustus [Sam Penn] is a bit of a troublemaker, while manservant Jellaby [Sam Wallace] importantly is a go-between, delivering letters among the various sets of lovers.

In 1995, descendants of the 1809 Coverlys -- math student Valentine [Kodi Robertson], his younger sister Chloe [Karisn Warrington], and young brother Gus [Sam Penn again, who Stoppard has passing important props from oner time period to the next] -- host Hannah Jarvis [Brittany Vallely], a best-selling author of a book about Byron's mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, and is researching a book about the "hermit" of Sidley Park. When university professor Bernard Nightingale [Michael Krek] shows up hoping to collaborate with her, but with his own agenda; he has letters found in books that give evidence of the earlier times' characters' relationships: those letters seen earlier as delivered by Jellaby.

Lots of plot elements to keep straight, especially as so much of it hinges on the sexual relationships among the characters both past and present. No further spoilers here; there are a lot of plot twists and revelations that connect the time periods. -- And Mr. Winkelman keeps all the balls in the air with a fast paced comic delivery from his actors. This is a tight ensemble, and while the audience may be perplexed at first from Stoppard's multi-layered script, and the challenges of following his themes, the actors inform each character with precise traits that are both entertaining and impressively truthful. There are some articulation issues, but for the most part, the company tell a complex story clearly.

At two and a half hours, Arcadia makes the audience work, but the rewards are worth it.