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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
Arcadia, which toys with elemental forces of heat, attraction and chaos, starts out looking for all the world like a tidy old-fashioned drawing room comedy. Bright and shiny little Thomasina Coverly (Alex Boyle) and her witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Maxwell Eddy) are surrounded by her family and several guests on the estate at Sidley Park in 1809. Lady Croom (Charlotte Northeast), Thomasina's mother and the grande dame of Sidley Park, is particularly reminiscent of Oscar Wilde characters. With her imperious bearing, impeccable enunciation and deft handling of comic twists, she clings to the past and the notion of Arcadia, even as her exceptional children are hot for progress, discovery, and sexual awakening.
Houseguest and dubious poet, Ezra Chater (Bradley K. Wrenn), is grateful that his wife — out of sheer concern for her husband's career — has allowed Septimus to seduce her. Although his wife is among the characters who are never seen, it's learned through reportage that she, ahem, makes herself available to quite a few gentlemen. Simmering emotions and gravitational attractions are embodied in double entendres and accumulating slips of information. It becomes evident that the science of bodies in heat is being pursued behind the scenes all around the manor and in the gazebo.
Erudition meets biological drives not only in the past but also in the present. Modern characters include descendents of the Coverly family and their house guests. Three, including Valentine Coverly, are researchers, who uncover evidence of different but related events that once transpired on the estate.
The audience is expected to be heads-up with this mystery story, actively following-- and sometimes ahead of - the characters. Viewers need to maintain close attention to catch all the inference and innuendo as it all comes together. Things get progressively more complicated when the contemporary scenes alternate with scenes of the past. Comments and foreshadowing by present day characters feed into the audience's understanding of what is transpiring, even as the audience's privileged viewing of the past reveals some things the researchers don't know.
"The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is," says Valentine in the present day. Daniel Fredrick's refreshing, open approach to the role provides a perfect foil for Kittson O'Neill's decidedly unfrivolous Hannah, who doggedly searches the past for the elusive Sidley Park hermit, the genius of the place. "It's wanting to know that makes us matter," says Hannah. The third researcher, the bombastic and benighted Bernard Nightingale (Joe Guzman), brings a big hit of energy. [Is Stoppard sending up Brit crit Benedict Nightingale for taking aim at some of his earlier plays?]
The researchers make discoveries — some correct, some not— involving English landscaping, Lord Byron, amateur treatises on thermodynamics, grouse hunt game books, duels and dalliances. A titillating newspaper headline on Nightingale's essay reads: "Sex, Literature and Death at Sidley Park." Valentine follows through on Thomasina's remarkable instincts for physics, and everyone has theories, even his non-scientific but tuned-in sister. "The universe is deterministic, except for sex, which gets in the way because people want the wrong people," opines Chloe Coverly (Angela Smith).
The spare, but very dramatic set features soaring windows, but the view of the estate's immense gardens is purposefully obscured. The landscape, under the care of Mr. "Culpability" Noakes, remains unseen except in a small picture book on a lecture stand, which shows its evolution from predictable order to dramatic chaos. In later years the grounds will go to weeds, as the landscape architecture evidences the entropy treated in the play.
The interior, empty except for a large dominant wooden table and a couple of plain chairs, remains the same throughout, even as the action artfully alternates between times, then staggers unevenly between times, and eventually achieves a phantom meshing of past and present.
The lighting, mostly bright and sometimes blazing, contrasts with the downplayed strains of piano music originating offstage. When Lady Croom at one point declares it too loud, it's already practically subliminal. Later when the volume rises for a party, it doesn't rise far.
Curiously, the director departs somewhat from Stoppard's stage directions by periodically having excess items removed from the table, keeping it attractive and fairly orderly. Key props that are shared across time by the characters are retained. The books and notes of the past become the source material for researchers in the present. Stoppard had suggested just leaving all props on the table to let it become quite cluttered, so by the end of the play the table "has collected an inventory of objects." In choosing focus and handsomeness over the disorderly accumulation of all the detritus piled up from past scenes, the production loses a visible example of a major theme — order degenerating into entropy: "The future is disorder." For the most part, however, the director has stuck pretty close to Stoppard's guidelines for handling this complicated play, while keeping herself open to inspiration and to the exigencies of the production.
Lantern Theater Company's smart, rich and resonant production, with its solid design and uniformly excellent cast, rewards the audience's long and intense concentration on Stoppard's tour de force.