October 12, 2001

Stoppard's Arcadia woos crowd with math

The cabby exited The Viaduct only to find it again, this time nestled neath the trestles in the form of a building and capitalized. I paid the man and entered the Viaduct, a small playhouse located a few minutes west via bus of the Belmont El stop. A handcrafted sign greets the visitor at the front door. Inside lies an entryway, a lounge and, beyond it, the stage. Intimate and smoky, more a studio than a formal theater, The Viaduct lent the perfect environment to bring to life Stoppard's Arcadia.

Set on a family estate in Derbyshire, England, Arcadia shuttles back and forth between the early 19th century and present day and explores the fleeting nature of truth as well as the relationship between sex and knowledge. Through the course of the play, modern characters manipulate facts and speculate on events that took place in the very same room almost 200 years ago. That the audience sits at most three seats back from the stage creates the perfect environment to witness past events firsthand. We feel a closeness to these events that a large theater could not provide. And so the wince that runs across the face when characters “prove" events that did not happen is all the more acute.

Stoppard's genius comes forth in his wit. His reliance on “intellectual" rather than “emotional" theater to provoke lends itself well to The Viaduct's small setting, a setting in which projection takes a back seat to nuance. The dialogue, not physical distortions, drives the play and holds the audience. John Byrnes portrays with ease the sex-crazed and sarcastic tutor Septimus Hodge, using subtle gestures, combined with on-point delivery, to convince.

However, the battle between emotion and reason runs deep throughout the play. To rely solely on ideas is to deny this battle. Emotional theater, while hard to execute without exaggeration, occupies an important role in the performance. Stoppard invites such emotion to come forth in Ezra Chater and Bernard Nightengale. We see Chater's enflated ego in the text, but without action he fails to rise from the dimension of the page. Thankfully, Will Schultz adds a sputtering, passionate, bumbling delivery to the 19th-century poet's extant narcissism. However, while Schultz' actions add depth and entertain, they sometimes come across exaggerated and scripted, rising from the level of satire to that of farce. Don Bender breathes the right amount of sleaze into the flamboyant intellectual hack Bernard Nightengale. While Bender ridicules inflated intellectuals beautifully, he comes across too loud and his relationships, distorted.

Director Sean Graney asserts that “Emotional theater runs too great a risk to be false, over-acted or manipulative." Schultz and Bender may overact, but it is tempting to support their choice. Both Chater and Nightengale suffer from self-inflation, and exaggeration and loudness only help to illustrate their condition. Bender may distort Nightengale's relationships, but wouldn't Nightengale's ego create distortion in real life? Moreover, the loudness only reminds us that these characters, in all their noise, say nothing and add nothing to collective truth.

However, what we gain in allegory we lose in reality. If a function of theater is to observe the natural behavior of humans, we cannot twist characters into symbols. Bender may highlight Nightengale's narcissistic qualities, but elevating him to a symbol of narcissism ultimately detracts from the accuracy of relationships and the synthesis of the play.

Donna McGough gives arguably the best performance as Hannah Jarvis, who holds a crucial role in the play in that she is the wisest of Stoppard's modern characters and the most poised to further positive intellectual thought. Unlike Nightengale, Jarvis commits herself to knowledge rather than fame. Thus, while originally she is no better at solving the mysteries of the past than her contemporary is, we hold more hope for her because of her willingness to revise theories when confronted by fact. McGough captures Jarvis' intelligence, sarcasm, modesty, and frigidity with aplomb.

Director Graney succeeds in breathing life into Arcadia, handling each theme with intelligence and creating a forum in which Stoppard's ideas can thrive and gather new meaning. Particularly commendable is Graney's treatment of Arcadia's final scene. A recurrent theme in Arcadia is the struggle to discern truth amidst chaos. Says Valentine to Hannah in scene four, “You start guessing what the tune might be. You try to pick it out of the noise. You try this, you try that, you start to get something — it's half-baked, but you start putting in notes which are missing or not quite the right notes…and bit by bit…the lost algorithm!" By the end of the play Hannah and Valentine finally learn much of “the lost algorithm" of the events that occurred in the same room almost 200 years ago. Truth is shared between the ages as characters from both time periods share the stage. The discoveries of the present coincide with the actions of the past. Delivery is perfect and we find our attention divided among the characters, all of whom demand our attention, as we struggle not to lose the thread of conversation that weaves artfully through both ages.

A brilliant play put on by a talented troupe in an intimate playhouse.