Review: Arcadia by Austin Shakespeare
by Michael Meigs
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia shines with wit and whimsicality. The dialogues between these characters are so quick and clever that sometimes you perch on the edge of your seat, breathlessly holding back your laughter so that you won't miss a single syllable. This is wit writ deep -- in the characters, their contrasting views of the world and their social positions; in dissembling, feuding and courtship; and in the juxtaposition and then the overlapping within the same genteel English manor house of events that occurred in 1809 and modern- day investigations of those events by archeologists and academics. The message is that truth is unknowable and that life occurs only in the flicker and illumination of the present moment.
Unlike other arts, theatre performances occur in all four dimensions. The fourth, that of time, is the most challenging, for actions occurring before your eyes will never exactly replicate themselves.
In keeping with that theme, Arcadia is both an investigation and a detective story. It opens in 1809 as impecunious tutor Septimus Hodge is artfully avoiding difficult questions posed by his aristocratic pupil Thomasina Coverly. "Carnal embrace" becomes a theme of equivocation, not only in the classroom but also when outraged versifier Ezra Chater accuses Hodge and demands the satisfaction of a duel.
Young Thomasina is getting an earful, learning things far more interesting than her mother Lady Coverly will tolerate. Then, just as we have settled in with the characters to work through these intriguing complications, Stoppard delivers us to the present day. In the same setting, with the same furnishings and props, we see the attractive Chloë, a Coverly descendant, usher in a visitor.
Elements mixed into these lively plots include the construction of an extensive garden in full romantic style, complete with a hermitage ("But where am I to enlist a hermit?" complains Lady Coverly); Thomasina's notion that mathematics would be much more interesting if one could somehow go beyond sterile geometry into the description of living things; the activities of Lord Byron at the estate; peppy academic and personal wrangling between Bernard and Hannah; the death of a botanist bitten by a monkey; and the nonchalant reactions of three contemporary Coverly siblings: Valentine the yoga-practicing geek, Chloe the courteous, luscious young thing, and Gus, who's severely inhibited and obsessive.
The cast is outstanding, without exception. Georgia McLeland as earnest Thomasina is the youngest of them, a veteran of LBJ High School productions and of all three Young Shakespeare summer productions at the Curtain Theatre. McLeland is a natural -- perfectly in mastery of her character, playful and thoughtful by turns and entirely convincing. Our hearts go out to her as we watch her quiet delight at her first and last waltz with Septimus in the final scene.
Other young adults we've seen on this stage and elsewhere in Austin: Collin Bjork, erstwhile Romeo for this company, now has a very adult gravity and concentration as the tutor, while Philip Kreyche as the modern day Valentine Coverley shows that his talent in creating a fully vivid contemporary character is just as valid as his various earlier portrayals of costumed major figures of the drama.
Ciccolella tells us that Stoppard is an autodidact, astonishingly, a writer without a college degree. Even so, he's a fine observer of that world, judging from his cheerful, clever satire of the antagonism and intellectual sparring between Shelby Davenport as Bernard and the tersely delightful Liz Beckham as Hannah. Other characters are distinctive and deftly delivered -- with special recognition to Steve Cruz for doubling as the tweedy landscape architect and as the ponderously servile butler Jellaby. It was fun to have Gwen Kelso back with us for a time to do the imperious Lady Coverly before she returns to her new digs in New York.
We don’t know, and neither the character nor the actor would tell us that evening. Gurevich was the only cast member who did not turn up on stage after the performance for the Q&A.
A feverish investigator, similar to Bernard Nightingale, might seize upon that single detail to build an entire, coherent and probably entirely inaccurate back story. . . .
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