Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: (Shaw) Arcadia

Kate Besworth and Gray Powell (photo by David Cooper)

Chaos theory, Newtonian physics, and Lord Byron
Tom Stoppard’s play gifts us with knowledge and humour
by Dave Ross

Arcadia opened last night at the Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake with great expectations. Sitting in my seat before the show, the audience was chatting amongst themselves about Tom Stoppard’s play, and about what they were expecting. No one was disappointed – Arcadia is a barn-burner. 

I will not single out any performers here, as the entire cast has given so much to each character. Set in 1809-1812 and the present day, in the same location in both timelines, it could be very easy for characters (particularly in the earlier time frame) to become poncey caricatures, but the performers have ensured this does not happen. These dual time frames are integrated so tightly, but kept distinct, with only one actor having a role in both periods, and even then, it is only briefly. This prevents any overlap between performances, and was a wise decision on Stoppard’s part.

It is such a shame that this is being mounted in a venue that is so small the run has sold out in its entirety. 

Stoppard’s script is so deftly written.  As mentioned, this book is set in two time frames, but in the same room of a large country house in Derbyshire overlooking Sidley Park. In the first time frame, we see events unfold – Tomasina (Kate Besworth) taking lessons from her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) in maths and other subjects. Her maths are exceptionally advanced for her age. Other events unfold around these two characters in 1809-1812. In the present day, we have academics Hannah Jarvis (Diana Donnelly) and Bernard Nightingale (Patrick McManus) debating over the events of the original time period, each in their own silo of knowledge. Hannah and Bernard bump heads on the activities of the original time frame, and seek to find out why the poet Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker) disappeared so abruptly from Sidley Park, shortly before Lord Byron takes an unexplained two year absence from Britain. The script is incredibly smart, delving into topics including Newtonian physics, landscape gardening, sex, chaos theory, the classical vs. the romantic, and algebra. While these topics are daunting, Stoppard presents them in such a way that anyone can still access the story. All the characters are whip-smart with their specialties, but this never once creates inaccessibility. If anything, I learned more about physics while laughing than I could have thought possible. 

Director Eda Holmes has ensured that we are moved from time to time in a very fluid manner that is never once jarring. The design by Sue LePage is appropriate to a house of the period, providing elegance and opportunities for slamming-doors farce in the same set.  The music by Allen Cole is subtle, and integrates perfectly into the events. The design has been executed with a set of French doors at the rear of the stage that look out over the park, or more specifically, a beautiful silken blue-green abstract field. However, at the end of the curtain call, the cast depart through these French doors, and the backdrop rises, revealing the perfectly-aligned exit to the fields outside the Studio theatre, and beckon the audience to follow them out through the set into “Sidley Park.” While some could see this as trite, it was actually a lovely end to the evening. 

Stoppard’s play is a work of genius, and the Festival’s mounting of it is sharp, hyper-intelligent, and beyond reproach.  It is such a shame that this is being mounted in a venue that is so small the run has sold out in its entirety. This play is one that must be seen, and I wish that you could see THIS production. But if you maintain a list of must-see plays to be seen whenever they appear, place Arcadia on that list. 

2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission
To September 7

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