May 15, 2007

Court’s production of Arcadia predestined for success

The moment the lights came up for intermission, my friend and I began to gush. As soon as we hit a pause in our effusive praise, she shook her head in wonder: “I never liked Stoppard until tonight.”

It couldn’t be an uncommon reaction to Arcadia. The script takes the high-concept, intellectual content Tom Stoppard is known for and mixes it with a mob of rich, engaging characters and a plot that’s involving despite its not really being the point. More than that, it’s a play practically written for U of C students—putting mathematical theory, philosophy, the travails of academics, and deeply repressed sexual energy at its heart. Sitting down for the press opening of Court Theatre’s production, I focused on things to criticize to avoid producing a fanboy-style review.

It didn’t work. By the end of the evening, I had dropped all pretense and had my eyes glued to the stage as the tutor Septimus Hodge gracefully waltzed with his young pupil Thomasina Coverly, while a far more awkward dance occurred between the historian Hannah Jarvis and the mute genius Gus Coverly two centuries later. So much for journalistic objectivity.

In fairness, the cast and crew more than did the show justice. Director Charles Newell made several distinct choices in staging the interconnected but parallel tales of Arcadia, and to his credit, managed to make them work. The energy and pace in the scenes based in Sidley Park in 1809 are set much higher than those in modern times. This was a risk, given that the central characters in the classical scenes are the thoughtful Thomasina and the lofty, arrogant Septimus, as opposed to the sharp-tounged Hannah, the twitchy mathematician Valentine Coverly, and the veritably manic academic Bernard Nightingale.

In the opening minutes, it seems like a risk not worth taking. Septimus is a bit of a ham, a conscious performer, and as a result his legitimate losses of control are robbed of some of their power. The 1809 characters are almost Sorkinesque, with their lines coming right on top of each other in most anachronistic fashion. Yet once the present day scenes begin, the contrast between the established tempos is obvious, and the snappy dialogue of the classic scenes begins to seem less misplaced and more self-aware. At times Arcadia seems to parody the classic British drawing room comedy, and Newell and company embrace that aspect of the show rather than fighting it.

While the director’s work in drawing triangular stage pictures is technically interesting, the casual viewer will likely be more impressed by how the show uses the full stage and beyond. Newell’s staging weaves his characters in and out of the center of the circular platform and takes advantage of the aisles as exits. This allows some of the more minor characters to remain involved instead of fading into the background. Furthermore, it provides some innovative solutions to the problem of what to do with the silent Gus, who must establish his presence without being in the forefront of the viewer’s mind for some of his later scenes to work. Gregory Anderson is able to sneak in and out of scenes unnoticed when he needs to and very much noticed when he wants to.

Newell’s casting was also praise-worthy. Among the moderns, Kevin McKillip is a brilliant Bernard, giving the publicity-hungry Sussex don a perfect mixture of pomposity and panic. He makes a great foil for the relatively imperturbable Valentine of Erik Hellman, a very believable quintessential geek, and both play well against Mary Beth Fisher’s Hannah. Her excitement is what one would normally expect out of Septimus in a production of Arcadia; it’s all the more gripping because it’s such an adjustment from her usual sarcasm.

Back in 1809, Kate Fry lights up the stage as Lady Croom. The mistress of the manor is imperious, with a dry wit that’s necessarily at the expense of others. She’s not the easiest character to make likable, and it’s critical that the audience understand why Septimus is in love with her. Fry accomplishes that and more, never stealing the scene but certainly never letting you take your eyes off of her whenever she’s on stage. The best moments for Grant Goodman as Septimus come in the second act, as he finally gets the chance to bring his rampant sexuality and playfulness to bear against Fry’s frustration with the incompetents around her.

Given that Arcadia follows storylines in two very different time periods taking place in the exact same room, it poses some unique and challenging design questions. Court’s team proved itself up to the task. Matthew York’s scenic design and Marc Subblefield’s lights remained just sparse enough to allow a few small hand props to completely change the setting without taking the audience out of the show. They use subtle but smart touches; the viewer never realizes that the lights are dulled until they suddenly brighten as the impertinent Bernard charges into the room, and the audience member forgets the spotlight trained on a certain point on the drawing room table until the stage goes dark to reveal a beam aimed at an apple, a notebook, or a candle. Linda Roethke’s costumes and Josh Harvath’s and Ray Nardelli’s sound design draw less attention but serve their purposes without being obtrusive.

Was this a perfect production? That would be going too far. While Bethany Caputo’s performance of Thomasina makes it clear that she’s an extremely talented actress, at some points I found myself not quite believing her as a 13-year-old—and not in the way that the audience is intended to see her as older than she is. Perhaps as a result, the chemistry of her relationship with Septimus is somewhat unstable. The 1809 scenes have something of an uneven feel to how period they are, and the eyebrow-raising intimacy between these two characters is a major part of that. You’re occasionally left wondering why the Coverlys continue to trust this man with their daughter.

On the whole, though, Court has another top-quality show to end its season. Newell’s Arcadia is smart and sexy and will get you thinking without making you feel the burdens of its 185-minute run time. At least for this Stoppard fan, there’s far more to admire than to condemn—reviewer’s integrity be damned.

Just extended through June 10, tickets $36–54, student tickets available.