Romantic Theory: Love and Literature Combine in Stoppard's 'Arcadia'

If the Freshman Theater Program's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia seems decidedly more professional than most student productions, it is hardly a coincidence. The director of the show, one actor and the lighting, set and costume designers are professionals, hired to guide and work alongside the newly arrived first-years who make up most of the cast and technical crew. What is most remarkable about this Arcadia, however, is that the student actors are nearly as polished as the professionals.

The odd-numbered scenes in Arcadia are set at an English country manor in the early nineteenth century. The even-numbered scenes take place in the present at the same estate, Sidley Park, where bickering historians attempt to reconstruct the story of what happened in the other scenes. Arcadia is an extended rumination on love, sex, history and entropy that revolves around discussions of Fermat's Last Theorem, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, iterated algorithms, Byron's poetry and the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism in England. That Arcadia is not exactly an accessible work did not bother the audience in the Agassiz Theatre, however, who took the self-conscious intellectualism in stride and laughed along with Stoppard's absolutely breathtaking word- and idea-play.

The theater itself offers an ideal setting for the production. Janie Howland's design is such that the Agassiz Theater looks like an extension of her set, which depicts a sitting room in the Sidley Park manor house. In the 19th-century scenes, 23-year-old tutor Septimus Hodge (Austin Guest '04) instructs 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Sarah Thomas '04), the precocious daughter of Lord and Lady Croom, the aristocrats who own Sidley Park. Jana Howland's costume design evokes the complexity of period dress through relatively simple outfits, which seem credible but not overwrought. In the present-day scenes, academics Hannah Jarvis (Megan Robertson '04), the quiet, shrewd, studious scholar, and Bernard Nightingale (John Arnold, a professional), the arrogant, flamboyant publicity-monger, spar with each other in even more perfectly chosen accoutrements. Jarvis wears flats and a baggy sweater, Nightingale a tailored three-piece suit and elaborate facial hair. The production's selection of properties, which range from a brace of hunting pistols in the past to a humorously situated liter of Tanqueray in the present, rounds out the immense visual appeal of this Arcadia, the fact of which is quite an accomplishment for director Patrick Demers precisely because the play is so centered on words.

Indeed, the words are most memorable here, and for the most part the actors do them justice. Sadly, British accents are rather uniformly weak; with the exception of Arnold, the best the actors achieve is a consistent and inoffensive muddle of British and American English. On balance, the present-day scenes are slightly better than those set in the past. Robertson and Arnold are excellent in their exchanges with each other; they recognize the extreme dryness of Stoppard's wit and construct their characters accordingly. Geordie Broadwater '04 is also outstanding in these scenes as Valentine Coverly, a member of the family that still lives at Sidley Park. Broadwater is weighted with many of the monologues in which Stoppard attempts to give five-minute explanations of chaos theory and quantum physics, but he manages them adroitly, maintaining a constant command of his words and showing a fine sense of timing.

The 19th-century scenes seem less even. Particularly in Guest's case, the performances are less subtle than perhaps they should be, less evocative of the dry British wit that the other half of the cast masters more handily. Guest's reading of Hodge is troublesome: His Hodge is too boyish, too adolescent. This approach to the character succeeds during Hodge's exchanges with his young pupil, with whom he gradually falls in love. It is touching to see Hodge become awkward and fumble for words as he is increasingly undone by his teenage student. But Guest seems to neglect that the amorous Hodge has also seduced most of the adult women at Sidley Park, and he shows only glimpses of the grown-up suaveness that he should have in order to have done so.


Nonetheless, both sets of scenes build admirably toward the last scene, where past and present play out simultaneously in a beautifully directed finale that leaves little to be desired from the production as a whole. It is easy when reading Arcadia to suspect that the best production would be the most transparent, putting the least distance between the audience and Stoppard's words. Demers' Arcadia provides a sound and satisfying refutation of this notion, supplying a set of rich visuals and excellent performances that make this production nearly as sensual as it is intellectual.


written by

Tom Stoppard

directed by

Patrick Demers

Oct. 26-28

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