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To the Manor Born and Byron

Ed Rampell: More than any other play I can think of, Arcadia uses flashbacks for a form so richly textured that instead of referring to dramatic “structure” one could more properly use the term “architecture.”
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Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Tom Stoppard’s Complex Drama Launches ANW’s25thAnniversary Season

A Noise Within’s thought provoking production of Tony and Oscar-winning playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is kicking off the 25th anniversary season of what TheHuffington Post called “one of the nation’s premier classical repertory companies.” Well, ANW better be, in order to credibly mount Stoppard’s extremely complicated 1993 drama which has been lauded in the UK’s Independent as “perhaps the greatest play of its time” and in The New Yorker as “a masterpiece… the finest play written in my lifetime.”

More than any other play I can think of, Arcadia uses flashbacks for a form so richly textured that instead of referring to dramatic “structure” one could more properly use the term “architecture.”

This two-acter is so complex that the playbill actually includes a “character map” which, like a genealogical diagram, traces who is who in a series of boxes linked to one another. More than any other play I can think of, Arcadia uses flashbacks for a form so richly textured that instead of referring to dramatic “structure” one could more properly use the term “architecture.” (Indeed, one of Stoppard’s leitmotifs is gothic landscape architecture.) The flashback is generally a cinematic device which no less an artiste than Alfred Hitchcock found troublesome to properly deploy onscreen, although the French New Wave director Alain Resnais made effective use of the technique.

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Abby Craden (Lady Croom) and Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Arcadia’s multifaceted plot is divided between the early 19th century and a mostly different cast in contemporary times. The characters of both eras are at Sidley Park, a country house in Derbyshire, England. The drama flashes back and forth from the 1809-ish dramatis personae to their modern counterparts until they are, rather imaginatively, fused together onstage. In the latter’s mise-en-scène, the stagecraft of Stoppard - the dean of today’s British dramatists, who has also co-written films such as Shakespeare in Love - is actually being more cinematic on the stage than most filmmakers are on the screen. Indeed, Arcadia has more flashes than Menopause the Musical.

To further complicate matters, Stoppard deals with gothic landscapes, scientific and mathematical concepts and the actors all speak in British accents (although most of the thesps are not necessarily from Britain), which makes some dialogue hard to follow. This veteran reviewer also had difficulty in some cases in grasping who is supposed to be who. In the first scene, the dorky Ezra Chater (Jeremy Rabb) accuses the randy Septimus Hodge (Rafael Goldstein), who is the tutor of 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Erika Soto), of cuckolding him by having sex with Mrs. Chater in a gazebo. Was Abbey Craden’s character supposed to be Ezra’s errant wife? It turns out Craden is playing the part of Lady Croom - who is Thomasina Coverly’s mother, although her title befuddles this fact.

It turns out that Mrs. Chater the cheater is only verbally referred to and never actually appears onstage. Confusing, isn’t it? But Arcadia’s most important offstage presence who is never seen per se on the boards is none other than Lord Byron. England’s real life romantic poet is Arcadia’s “MacGuffin” - an often arbitrary plot device mainly used to move a story along so the protagonist can pursue his goal. (Hitchcock popularized this concept, which the Master of Suspense often used.) In Arcadia’s second scene we encounter the present-day characters at Sidley, including a descendant of the 19th century Coverlys, Valentine Coverly (Tavis Doucette), a post-grad in mathematical biology, and Hannah Jarvis (Susan Angelo), an author researching a book at the landed estate.

Enter the flamboyant Bernard Nightingale (Freddy Douglas, who graduated from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama), an academic on the make (in more ways than one) of the “publish or peril” school of scholars - even if the publication is a tattletale-type tabloid rag. During the course of the play documentation confirms that the renowned Lord Byron not only visited Sidley but was a schoolmate of Hodge at (methinks) Trinity College, Cambridge.

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Richy Storrs (Augutus Coverly/Gus Coverly), Susan Angelo (Hannah Jarvis), Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly), and Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Nightingale forms an alliance with Jarvis, as they try to prove whether or not Byron was involved in an alleged scandal at Sidley, which in turn led to the poet’s decision to go to Greece to fight for that nation’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1823. Solving this supposed literary mystery - which would propel Nightingale, the wannabe Byronic hero, and Jarvis to stardom in the world of English academia and letters - is an important part of the MacGuffin that cuts back and forth between the centuries, as the 20th/21st century characters try to crack the case. The dispute between Nightingale and Jarvis - their relationship is fraught with sexual frisson - is like the conflict between the Classical (i.e., rational rigors of logical thought passed down from ancient Greece and the Enlightenment) and the Romantic (i.e., emotional and intuitive thought/feeling process) traditions, yet another mind-boggling layer of Stoppardian complexity.

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Stoppard seems to have derived Nightingale’s name from Byron’s poem “It is the Hour”:

“It is the hour when from the boughsThe nightingale's high note is heard;It is the hour -- when lover's vowsSeem sweet in every whisper'd word;”

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Susan Angelo (Hannah Jarvis) and Tavis Doucette (Valentine Coverly). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In any case, he is so self-involved that it never seems to occur to Nightingale that Byron’s motives for going to fight for Greek independence were pure and noble. It’s beyond the egotist’s ken to consider that one may desire to fight for the liberation of oppressed people out of a sense of solidarity with suffering humanity, just as George Orwell and others joined the International Brigades to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. For example, in his 1816 The Prisoner of Chillon, Byron paid homage to a freedom fighter cruelly imprisoned centuries ago in Chillon castle located in what is now the French-speaking region of Switzerland. In this respect, Nightingale is like those deniers of Edward Snowden who impugn the whistleblower’s integrity and intentions because they - running lapdogs of the establishment who never gave anything up for humanity - can’t comprehend selfless sacrifice for a principle.

(BTW, Nightingale’s timeline is all wrong: Lord Byron intervened in Greece in 1823, which led to his death the following year. So the not- so-scholarly Nightingale’s supposition that events at Sidley circa 1809 led to Byron’s departure for Greece is way off the mark - which, one suspects, Stoppard is well aware of. And also BTW, Byron’s struggle on behalf of the Greeks against the Ottomans may give Arcadia a “clash of civilizations” spin, as their empire was based in what is now Turkey - although Stoppard presumably did not intend this in 1993, when Arcadia premiered at London’s Royal National Theatre.)

Sexuality is a subtext throughout much of Arcadia, which opens with the precocious adolescent Thomasina asking her rakish tutor what “carnal embrace” means (Hodge evasively responds with a, well, hodegepodge pseudo explanation). Heat and light reoccur as sexual allusions, as the brilliant Thomasina proves herself to be a child prodigy, who - well ahead of her time - deduces the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Her scientific insights parallel Thomasina’s growing awareness of sex as the child matures and comes of age. The play deals much with theoretical mathematics, physics, entropy, chaos theory and other scientific aspects way above this reviewer’s pay grade. But suffice it to say that Thomasina is consumed by the heat. She is well-drawn by Soto as a vivacious proto-feminist striving to assert herself in a patriarchal world where she is dismissed because of her gender and age, with Lady Croom anxious a few years after the first scene that she hasn’t married her daughter off by the time she’s around 17. In the immortal words of that sage philosopher, Snagglepuss: “Heavens to Mergatroyd!”

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Susan Angelo (Hannah Jarvis) and Freddy Douglas (Bernard Nightingale). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

And so on. What to make of Stoppard’s seven layer cake of a play? As Arcadia spans the centuries this play is certainly excellently acted and helmed by the brilliantly able Geoff Elliott. But it is not every ticket buyer’s taste - if putting your brain into neutral with mindless stage spectacles such as 42nd Street is your cup of tea, you may get lost in Arcadia’s hinterlands. Stoppard’s ambitious drama is for the more adventurous, thoughtful, serious theatergoer who enjoys thinking, as well as emoting, while watching those in front of the footlights perform. I do highly recommend that those intellectuals, plus lovers of finely etched acting, see this Arcadia.

The theme of A Noise Within’s 25th anniversary repertory season is “Beyond Our Wildest Dreams”, and it takes a high caliber - and voltage - company to present Stoppard’s almost three hour play. That ANW succeeds in rather admirably doing so may be the proof in the pudding of Huffington Post’s contention regarding the outfit’s primo status. After experiencing ANW’s productions of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, The Grapes of Wrath based on John Steinbeck’s novel, Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author, et al, for what it’s worth, this critic is inclined to agree with HuffPo’s grand pronouncement. Happy anniversary, ANW, and may your wildest dreams come through at the coast of Utopia.

A Noise Within’s production of Arcadia plays through Nov. 20 in repertory with Jean Genet’s The Maids and Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636)356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell