Folger Theatre's Arcadia

Arcadia, arguably Tom Stoppard’s finest play, is not theatre that you sit back and let wash over you. It is theatre where you lean forward, engaged, and hanging on every word. It is theatre that forces you to be turned on and tuned in. And I love it.

Arcadia takes place at the Coverly estate in Derbyshire, jumping between two time periods, the 1800s and the present. In the 1800s, the young Thomasina Cloverly (Erin Weaver) is searching for the geometry God used to create nature, under the guidance of her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Cody Nickell). In the present Hannah Jarvis (Holly Twyford) is trying to unearth who the hermit was that occupied the hermitage in the garden in the 1820s. Bernard Nightingale (Eric Hissom) is at the estate, looking into whether Byron was ever there (he was) and whether he fought a fatal duel (he didn’t). During all this research and discovery, the play hits upon literature, mathematics, romanticism, classicism, the Newtonian Universe, chaos theory, and much, much more.

Have no doubt, this play is brilliant. But the reason I think this play is so brilliant is that when you take away all the intellectual discussion and the wit and the literary and scientific references, you still have left fantastic characters. Characters you wish you knew and could spend time with. Indeed, Arcadia is not really about Byron and chaos theory. It is actually about something we all understand. And you have to hand it to Stoppard – the character who realizes what’s all about isn’t the smartest. In fact, she may even be the least intelligent of the main characters. As Chloe (Margo Seibert) tells her brother Valentine (Peter Stray), things don’t go according to plan, things don’t follow the Newtonian universe, because of heat. Well, you say, everyone knows that. But not that kind of heat. Chloe is speaking of “the attraction that Newton left out.” Human heat. Sex. That’s what this play is about: love, and human connections. And that is why it is truly great.

This is also the aspect that Aaron Posner’s current production at the Folger gets so right. He’s got fine actors in the four leading roles, and their chemistry is superb. It is a delight to watch Nickell and Weaver, Twyford and Hissom work together. The witty banter, the glaces, the things said and unsaid.

The cast is also filled with very intelligent actors who find their way into a text and make it their own. Many of them have considerable Shakespearean experience, which allows them to look behind the first, initial meaning of the text and find what lies beneath. For instance, Valentine and Hannah, during a mathematical discussion, turn to weather in the Sahara. Hannah claims it is fairly predictable. Valentine says, “The scale is different but the graph goes up and down the same. Six thousand years in the Sahara looks like six months in Manchester, I bet you.” “How much?” Hannah asks. “Everything you’ve got to lose.” “No.” “Quite right. That’s why there was corn in Egypt.” On the surface, a fairly innocuous discussion, but Stray and Twyford infuses it with so much more meaning. That is just one example of the many well-directed and well-acted moments to be found in this production. At another point in the play, Thomasina sketches a picture of Septimus and Plautus, his turtle. Septimus says, “Excellent likeness. Not so good of me.” Textually, the joke lies in the second sentence going against our perception of the first line. We think Septimus is saying that Thomasina drew him well. But the second line implies that she drew the turtle well, and not Septimus. But Cody Nickell delivers this line in a completely different way. “Excellent likeness.” Then he picks up the turtle and in ‘Plautus’s voice’: “Not so good of me.” Choices like these are absolutely delightful.

The wonderful acting found throughout the cast is lead by Eric Hissom as Bernard Nightingale. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. He is perfect in the role (and that is not a term I use lightly). Hissom gets everything about Bernard right. His attitude, his wit, his physical mannerisms, it all works. He brings out things in Bernard that I didn’t even know where there. He captures the Britishness of Bernard – being slightly effeminate, yet masculine at the same time. He’s got the charisma of arrogance, and the infectious enthusiasm of an intellectual. I loved every moment of his performance.

If there is any criticism for this production, it is Aaron Posner’s tendency to want to make sure everything in absolutely clear for his audience. (He does this in his Shakespeare plays as well, instead of just trusting us to keep up). As a result, moments move slower than they should, particularly in the opening scene. Humor is hit a little too hard. Arguable, it may be necessary for a play such as this. Obviously there will be audience members who come into it, knowing nothing about it, and maybe they need that time to gear into the production. But so much of Stoppard’s humor relies on wit and wordplay. And humor like that has to flit by, with a deft touch. But this is only a slight criticism. The play is soon moving right along, reaching the end of it’s three hour running time without you even noticing.

4 stars
Through June 21


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