BWW Reviews: Westport Community Theatre Explores The Past and Present in Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA
Westport Community Theatre closes out its 2013-2014 season with a thought-provoking production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. As entertaining as it is complex, this play takes place around a large table in a single room at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, England. With scenes going back and forth from the early 19th century and 1993, the past and present are intertwined to tell a story of math, science, poetry, passion, and the search for truth.
The script is brilliant. Hailed as one of the most important playwrights of our time, Tom Stoppard has written an intricate play filled with mathematical theorems, iterated algorithms, chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics, history, poetry, Lord Byron, literary pursuits and romanticism. On the surface, these themes can appear intimidating, but they are interwoven into a universal story about innocence and discovery, trust and deceit, the mystery of sex and the pursuit of knowledge. Add in witty and comedic dialogue interspersed with impassioned monologues by compelling characters and you have the makings of a masterpiece.
Director Mat Young skillfully leads the actors and the audience through this time jumping, truth seeking exploration. The plot of the play, with its seemingly disparate themes, almost defies description. The events that take place in Sidley manor in 1809 present a mystery that the characters in 1993 try to unearth. Along the way, we discover the true and often surprising nature of each character, drawing us into their story, and pointing out the folly of the modern academic as well as the difficulty in unearthing true history.
Each member of the cast lives up to the challenge of presenting a character as nuanced and complex as the play. We can marvel at the genius of Thomasina Coverly, played by Alexandria Clapp, as the unassuming ingenue who's mathematical discoveries are years before her time. Ms. Clapp convincingly changes from wide-eyed innocent, to naive coquette as she nears the age of 17, literally playing with fire as she flirts with her tutor, Septimus Hodge.
Septimus is played by Jeremy Funke, an actor who excels at playing characters of great intelligence and guile. His smooth voice and commanding presence, along with his character's superior faculties and clever use of language, make Septimus both a formidable opponent and dangerous ally. The way he verbally manipulates the hapless failed poet Ezra Chater, comically played by Patrick Duffy, out of fighting a duel over his wayward wife is brilliant. Julie Bell Petrak also shines as Lady Croom, the mistress of the manor whose own pointedly sarcastic admonishments and imposing nature make her a dangerous person to cross.
There are many outstanding performers on the modern side of the cast. Julie Thaxter Gourlay is superb as Hannah Jarvis, author, feminist, and researcher of the hermit of Sidley Park. Hannah is the epitome of the academic who values her research over any kind of romantic notion. She is meticulous in her research methods, and avoids anything to do with love. Hannah is the voice of reason in the play, and Ms. Gourlay perfectly displays the frustrated consternation at the leaps of logic taken by her adversary, Bernard Nightingale, aptly played by Damian Long.
Bernard is the romantic visionary of the piece, who is led by gut instincts instead of careful research and who bends and manipulates the data in order to fit his already formed conclusion. He is a man who is not really in search of the truth, but who is blinded by the notion of notoriety and accolades. He is a true romantic, as evinced in his histrionic reading of the paper he is about to publish. He also takes umbrage at the way science chips away at romantic ideals, to the detriment of mankind. It is very telling when he says, "We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars-big bangs, black holes-who [cares]? How did you people con us out of all that status?"
Ryan Hendrickson plays Valentine Coverly, the modern descendant of Thomasina, and a mathematician in his own right. Valentine serves the role of explaining the math to Hannah and to the audience. To Valentine, the quest for knowledge itself is exciting, and he is not afraid to make mistakes because an error can be a starting off point for more learning. Mr. Hendrickson's portrayal of Valentine's ardent enthusiasm for the act of learning is delightfully infectious.
There are many more characters to fill out the pieces of the Sidley puzzle and all are well suited to their roles. Nick Kaye plays Captain Brice, a significant piece in the Chater mystery; Shelly Lepetich plays Getrude Noakes, the gardener whose modern landscape provides another piece of the puzzle for Hannah to unearth; Sam Mink as Jellaby, the butler who seems to know all that goes on in the household; Allie Russo as Chloe Coverly, another descendant who postulates that an ordered universe can become disordered by sex; and Emma LaPlace who plays both Augustus and Gus Coverly, acting as the connecting characters between the past and the present.
David Eger's set design and Jeff Klein's lighting help to create a Sidley Park that works for both the 19th century and modern timelines. Interestingly, the props used by both the historical and modern cast are kept on the table throughout as additional symbols of how the past and present are related. One particular prop, an ancient turtle, also serves as a clue for Hannah as to the identity of the Sidley hermit.
Arcadia not only challenges our intellect, but explores many philosophical questions about the nature of what makes us human, the quest for knowledge and the future of our universe. Are we ultimately headed toward destruction and if so, will our emotions or our intellect be our saving grace? Or perhaps a little of both? Interestingly, perhaps the real marvel of this piece is that we can contemplate such profound questions, and still laugh and be entertained along the way.
Arcadia runs through June 22nd at Westport Community Theatre. Call 203-226-1983 for tickets.
L-R: Alexandria Clapp, Emma LaPlace, Ryan Hendrickson, Julia Thaxter Gourlay, Jeremy Funke. Photo by KevinMcNairPhotography