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.



Georgia McLeland, Collin Bjork (image: Kimberley Mead) For example, I attended this remarkable production on the second day of a three-weekend run. Perhaps you saw it the night before or at some succeeding performance. We can exchange views about it -- about the superb acting, the richness of language, the verisimilitude of those English accents, Jonathan Hiebert's costumes, Jason Amato's mastery of mood and lighting,  the startling simplicity and sublime concept of Ia Ensterä's set. But we were not there at the same event. Language fails to capture adequately even a shared reality; how much more tenuous it becomes when we describe different although related events.


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.




(image: Jason Amato)



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.



Shelby Davenport, Liz Beckham (image: Kimberley Mead)Stoppard substitutes arrogant academic Bernard Nightingale for the typical pothering local constable of Agatha Christie stories, but even so, there's a mystery, perhaps a duel, perhaps a crime, to be ferreted out. Shelby Davenport as Bernard has arrived at the estate in pursuit of evidence that Romantic Era poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, may have killed a minor poet and then fled abroad for two years. Bernard is dismayed to find the archives in the hands of author Hannah Jarvis, whose recent book about the period he demolished in a sardonic review.



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.



Shelby Davenport, Philip Kreyche (image: Kimberley Mead)Spice that with an exploration of fractal mathematics, the tale of an unidentified hermit who spent twenty years inhabiting the fake hermitage and left behind masses of incomprehensible scribblings, and an unexplained fire and death in 1809.  As well as, for good measure and a tug at the heartstrings, Thomasina's infatuation with her tutor and her desire to learn the waltz, that new dance that everyone from the Continent is speaking of.



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.




Collin Bjork, Georgia McLeland (image: Kimberley Mead)



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.


Victor Gurevich (image: Kimberley Mead)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.



Stoppard leaves us with a puzzle, aptly enough, in each of these worlds. It involves two largely silent Coverly heirs played by the same actor, Victor Gurevich. Speechless or nearly so, he lingers in our memories, set against the speeding language all around him. As Augustus, brother to Thomasina, he’s guarded and quick to take offense; in the contemporary story he is Gus, brother to Valentine and Chloë, completely asocial, a gifted musician and apparently infatuated with the visiting Hannah. Is he a rapid, merciless caricature of the aristocracy? Should we search further in these stories to uncover some suggestion of his involvement, a motivation and perhaps even a crime not hinted at?



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. . . .




Georgia McLeland and Collin Bjork; Liz Beckham and Victor Gurevich(image: Jason Amato)




Review by Dawn Youngs for, February 4

Review by Cate Blouke for the Statesman's Seeing Things blog, February 7

Review by Jillian Owens for the Austin Chronicle, February 9

Comments by Rebekah Adams at, February 8



Click to view the program of Arcadia by Austin Shakespeare


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by Tom Stoppard
Austin Shakespeare

February 02 - February 19, 2012
Rollins Theatre
Long Center
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704