Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review of "Das Rheingold" National Theater production, April, 2005

Das Rheingold is the first of the four operas that make up Wagner’s “The Ring of Nibelung.” For its part in the Ring Cycle, Rheingold tells the story of Alberich, a Nibelung troll, who comes to earth, renounces love, and steals the gold of the Rhine—from which he fashions a Ring that he can use to rule all the earth. (I know you raised your eyebrows there, but try to remember that the Nibelung myths that Wagner based his Ring Cycle upon predate Tolkein by several centuries.) Wotan, King of the Gods, takes Loge, the God of Mischief down to the underworld to retrieve the Ring and the gold, which they hope to use to pay two giants who have built a castle for them, in lieu of Friea, the sister to Wotan’s wife Fricka. Through cunning, the two Gods manage to reclaim the Ring, but at a price: Alberich places a curse upon the Ring and Wotan must foreswear it in the end, giving it to the giants as their payment for building Valhalla.

This is a story of a struggle for power and the lengths to which men and gods will go to get it: Wotan never intended to give Freia to the giants as their payment for building Valhalla, he had planned to trick them. He tries to set the gods Donner and Froh upon them, but only the intent to use Loge’s trickery in the end holds him back. Alberich, who first steals the Rhine gold, never wanted to woo the Rhine Maidens, he only wanted their gold to fashion the Ring. Loge wanted to use Wotan to recover the Ring for the Rhine Maidens, and laughs at the power of the curse in the end when the Ring falls into other hands. Even Fricka, Wotan’s wife, wanted the Ring for herself to rule her husband, but she falls silent at the end, seeing what the Ring has done to Wotan when he has it. In the end, one of the giants kills his brother to obtain power. A single, powerful theme dominates this first of four parts, and the intensity, heights, and depths of the music and the libretto match it every step of the way.

For such a resonant theme, this production did little to inspire or engage, and this happened for a number of reasons. First, whoever chose the costumes needs to find another line of work. In Das Rheingold, Gods, giants, trolls, and maidens make up the entire cast. Donner wields a giant hammer and Wotan carries a spear for the whole performance—he even uses it to stab Alberich in the hand when he wrests the Ring from his finger. Yet all of the characters, including the giants, sport clothes that men and women would have worn when Wagner wrote the opera. Wotan wore a tuxedo with long tails to compliment his spear; Donner donned a top hat and sport coat to go with his hammer. In the story, Alberich fashions a helmet that allows him to turn invisible; here the costumer makes the helmet a handkerchief that he uses to cover his head like a child on Halloween. Loge was the worst of all: the little hair he had left was dyed bright red to match a horribly ill-fitting three piece suit that could barely fit over his immense stomach. To top it off, he carried a cane because he was so immense that he needed one to get up and down the “mountain set.”

Speaking of the sets, for almost every minute of the performance, a screen hung in front of the stage, blurring the action. Most of the time, this happened for no reason. No lighting was used to create any effect with this in acts two, three, and four, yet the screen stayed down. This made the staging awful, because you could not see through the scrim. I sat in the eighth row and had difficulty enjoying the visual aspects of the opera. I can’t imagine how bad the screen ruined the staging for the people in the balcony or the galleries. Maybe this represented the director’s cheap (and only) theoretical attempt to separate and distance the audience from the “world of the Gods.” Maybe he should remember that we know we’ve come to the theatre, but that we also want to see what we paid for. The only inspiring, if not immaterial piece of set design was the underworld of the Nibelungs in Act Two, which for some reason contained a merry-go-round. During this scene, Alberich demonstrates his power by turning into a frog, which the prop master made a cheap puppet—and whose movement was controlled by an obvious stick attached to it. Even though the orchestra played through this, you could hear many members of the audience laugh embarrassingly. Here I thought this town did a nice job with marionette theatre.

I can’t criticize the entire production, because the singing redeemed much of it. The men playing Wotan and Alberich, whose numbers dominate, both sang remarkably well, and were very consistent in their presentations of the characters—both in acting and singing. Wotan, struggling with the Ring, deftly displayed his mental turbulence in song in Act Four; Alberich, equally conveyed his lust for power and dominance throughout the entirety of his performance. Fricka and Freia both had lovely voices, when you get to hear them, and Donner added a deep, rich baritone when called upon as well. Their parts are minor in Das Rheingold. The best, and unfortunately least singing came from the man playing Froh, who only sings one full song and snippets in others. His voice was rich, clear, and carried full weight; you wish that the director had cast him instead as Loge, who sang and acted abominably. Something is wrong with a production when you can’t hear the principal tenor’s voice over the orchestra in the eighth row. His voice was very thin and airy, and to coin a term, nearly a-melodius. I often thought he was speak-singing his part in order to make himself heard at all. However, for a man playing the God of Mischief, he looked like an aging queen, and acted that way. When the curtain comes down in Act Four, Loge laughs mischievously at the folly of the Gods and the curse of the Ring. But the laughter reminded more of Nathan Lane in “The Bird Cage.” Maybe I should note that Loge is also the God of Fire—and maybe that’s what the director was going for here.

The director did achieve some nice, albeit minor effects here and there. The giants played and looked their parts well—they wore something akin to (American) football shoulder pads under their costumes, giving them a hideous and grotesque presence. The Rhine Maidens not only sang well, but looked well, even in their Victorian costumes. However, the costume and make up people achieved a wicked appearance for them, a cross between sprites and witches. The maiden wearing a blue dress had blue streaks in her hair and blue lipstick and eye shadow, and likewise for the maidens in the purple and green dresses respectively. Although you couldn’t really see it with the screen in the way, it certainly looked aptly striking when they gave their curtain calls.

All told, the production did little to inspire. For a libretto and story that deals with the machinations of Gods and monsters, you think you could get a staging that at least attempts to equal it. This director didn’t even try. It’s not so much that the production was or seemed flat, but you never for a second felt drawn into it the story. This is understandable for say “Cosi fan tutti,” but seems unimaginable for an awe-inspiring high drama by Wagner. (Again, note to the director and set designer—maybe the scrim did that too). The action and pacing did not keep up with the music or the intensity of the singing required at all. Alberich is the only one that managed this throughout, but I credit him, rather than the director for this. Of course, the best part of the night was the music, and the singing of the principals, save Loge. You can’t beat Wagner for operatic intensity, and this aspect of the Ring does not fail to achieve majesty in the Romantic heights of the word.

Review of "Hamlet the Musical" seen in Prague, Sept. 2005

If you go to see the Kalich theatre’s production of the English version of Jan Ledecky’s Hamlet the Musical, don’t go with the expectation of seeing a version of the play well transposed into song. You’d have better luck finding an accurate retelling of the Gospels in Jesus Christ Superstar. However, what you will get is strong singing, memorable lyrics, and high drama in a well-staged production, all attained with a plot loosely based on Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the lack of correlation with the play does bring its share of downfalls. Because of what they left out, none of Hamlet’s madness could come through, and as a result, the plot is set as a straight revenge drama, once Hamlet finally learns of his father’s murder. Also, the changes force the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia to take center stage. While this adds nicely in the way of some very melodic romantic duets, it only serves to heighten her tragedy, at the expense of de-emphasizing his. In focusing more on the love story, the musical also loses out on the philosophy and wit of Shakespeare’s play. Of course, the musical Hair already used the “What a piece of work is man?” speech, but the only direct placement of text in Hamlet the Musical, is of all things, the mawkish advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes. Even the sword-fight becomes something different in Hamlet the Musical, even though everyone still dies in the end.

That said, there are many good reasons to see this play: Even though the music itself verges on simplistic, Ledecky uses it to great effect. One instinctively recalls such 70’s rock operas like JSC, Hair, and then later, Chess, as most of the music is heavy on keyboards and guitars with the belted roof-raising arias now popular in well…every musical. However, Ledecky has also infused chimes, Gregorian chant, vaudeville numbers, and big band sounds reminiscent of the 40’s and 50’s. He also achieves a remarkable effect in the variation of styles; thematically, the musical could belong to the category of musical revue rather than a coherent musical. While this might diminish other musicals, Ledecky has written this to dramatic advantage, as he uses the music to differentiate each of the minor characters, all of who sing in their own particular style.

Hamlet the Musical scores big on the characterization of minor characters. The play opens on the funeral of the murdered King, where Gertrude and Claudius now sing an eerie hymn, both revealing their complicity. In an interesting twist, Ledecky writes Gertrude as glad of her husband’s death, and portrays the relationship between she and Claudius as one of true-love. Polonius, an over-bearing bore in Shakespeare’s play, becomes here a cheesy nightclub lounge act from Vegas—an over-the-top hybrid of Tom Jones and Dean Martin at their best. He almost steals the show, hamming up this portrayal during the rousing number, “He’s Mad!” when trying to convince Claudius of the source of Hamlet’s depression. The show is stolen by the music and performance of Ulric, the gravedigger. After Ophelia’s death, he rises from the stage to a lone piano medley, his gravelly voice suggesting B.B. King, as he and Hamlet pantomime a vaudeville number with skulls and shovels as their hats and canes.

Sebastian Arcelus shines in the title role. Formerly of Broadway’s Rent, he is given ample opportunity from Ledecky’s music to showcase his talent, and he both acts and sings to full measure. Laertes and Ophelia perform equally well, Polonius, as mentioned, makes you laugh through your own embarrassment at how he handles his part. The worst singing came from Ledecky himself, who originated the title role in the Czech version of the same musical. His singing was garbled and incredibly difficult to understand. I originally thought this problem stemmed from a lack of fluency in English, but after the opening-night performance, he spoke quite easily to the audience about the show, translating his own Czech into English as he explained the genesis of his play. I find it unfortunate at best that he didn’t perform well in a role that he himself had written, to music that he himself composed.

The effects and staging blew me away. I’ve seen many productions on Broadway, and grown used to the revolving stage, but the space of Kalich theatre presented something entirely new. The stage itself is very small for a theatre that seats seven hundred, and the set itself is mammoth: a high castle tower that loomed over the stage and nearly into the first few rows of seats. The stage rotated through many of the songs and scenes, giving the impression of an unending labyrinth of rooms, as the actors chased or fought each other up and down twisting staircases, across moats and trenches, and finally on the ramparts of the castle itself, some twenty feet above the stage. The enormity of the set condensed the action in such a way that added another dimension to the production, as it condensed the space and the lives of all the performers in a way that lines from the text could not—forcing the audience to realize that a common fate bound all of these characters to their eventual doom. The best effect of the night I will leave as a surprise for whoever sees this musical; but I’ll mention that I’ve never seen a character plunge into the audience before.

The casting itself produced a few problems. At times, and not always due to the lighting, Hamlet looks older than both Gertrude (his mother), and his stepfather Claudius. While scholars might debate Hamlet’s age, placing him from 19 to even 30, Gertrude is stunningly beautiful, without a wrinkle and could pass for 25 in some of the revealing dresses she wears in the play. Even Polonius sports a thick head of hair and youthful appearance, and with the costumes, could pass for Ophelia’s older brother. I searched the program afterwards to see if Baz Luhrmann did the casting—one can expect photogenic actors, but these people were all young, and beautiful to watch. Did I mention that this was a bad thing in the production? But then again, this is both a musical and Shakespeare, and naturalism, even in appearance, is quickly shown to the door.

Despite a few minor flaws, Hamlet the Musical is sure to entertain. American producers have already picked up the musical, and plan to move it to New York sometime in 2006. A few changes in cast, and better overall singing will help ensure success, as the story and music succeed on their own merit. And despite the faults of this production, the spectacle of Hamlet the Musical is strongly sung to Ledecky’s inventive characterization, and I highly recommend for anyone to see it here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Review of Brooklyn Academy of Music's production of Hedda Gabler, 3-25-06 (starring Cate Blanchett!)

I consider Cate Blanchett one of the most talented and versatile actresses of our time. Similarly, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a play I regard as one of the best, most coherently structured plays ever written. So when I read that the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) planned to stage Hedda with Blanchett in the title role, I quickly bought tickets, eager to see an actress of her talents tackle one of the most difficult female roles in the dramatic repertoire. (And it didn’t hurt that they had also cast Hugo Weaving, of Agent Smith in The Matrix fame to play Judge Brack, one of the male leads.)

What I didn’t realize was that this production, by the Sydney Theater Company, was a new adaptation of Ibsen’s work, by Blanchett’s husband, the Australian playwright Andrew Upton.

Between Upton, and the director Robyn Nevin, I don’t know who to blame more for how badly they ruined Ibsen’s play and thereby eliminated any chance of a good production. It’s bad enough that Upton’s adaptation mangles the characters and butchers the play from beginning to end. But on top of that, Nevin’s directorial choices force Blanchett, Weaving, and Anthony Weigh (as Hedda’s husband Tesman) into portrayals of their characters that further cripple any revelation of the subtleties of Ibsen’s work.

First, but not foremost, in adapting Ibsen, one must realize that the man began his career as a poet—and that five of his first seven plays, plus his two early successes after those (Brand, and Peer Gynt) he composed in rhymed verse. Hedda Gabler, while written in prose that might sound stilted to 21st century ears, still demands that any updating embrace the complexity and fullness of the characters and text. Unequal to this task, Upton makes the decision to substitute common language in favor of Ibsen’s measured prose—which by itself isn’t bad. I could stand the modern dialogue if it was a mere transposition of Ibsen’s original lines and intent. But Upton avoids this, carving up the play to the extent that diluted the characters and made watching the entire first act no different from a weekly episode of Desperate Housewives.

More problematic though, is the fate to which Upton subjects the characters, especially the title role. Hedda’s character is mangled beyond recognition—and compounding this, Nevin has Blanchett play her without any of the motivations or intentions found in Ibsen’s text. In Hedda Gabler, her restlessness stems from a lifetime of cowardice and a failure to act. Consequently, her outbursts and petty games are scratches against the prison cell of her own choices—albeit one in which she stills strives to maintain freedom enough to entertain herself from boredom. In this way, Ibsen makes of Hedda a theme that he frequents often: a condemnation of those who fail to live according to their own stated principles. Hedda longs for a hero with “vine leaves in his hair,” fully aware that when she had her choice to do so, she backed down in cowardice. She affirms this in the play, stating unequivocally, “Ah yes, courage! If one only had that…Then life would perhaps be livable after all.” But it is courage that she lacks, and to compensate, she turns her own self-loathing outward, amusing herself in the manipulation of others.

No sense of this is found in the Hedda Gabler put on by Upton and Nevin. Throughout the first act, we get only a bored, restless housewife, struggling to come to terms with a marriage made beneath her station. Her treatment of the other characters is done by Blanchett with a childish malice; she throws flowers and cushions on the floor, she makes faces, she tries to peek into letters addressed to others. Meanwhile, though many motives are alleged for Hedda’s behavior—jilted lover, young girl afraid of the commitment of pregnancy, unwilling seductress when it goes too far—all of these are only airs put on by Blanchett, none of them capturing the essential quality of the role. Blanchett does act all of this with great skill, but her overt childishness throughout causes believability problems at the end of the play.

In this case, no one would believe that this Hedda would kill herself, especially not after seeing only a childish temper tantrum lashing out against the world in Act One. (Upton carved the play into two acts.) The early interpretation of Hedda only embodies a will to control or destroy others, but in no way did Blanchett develop the pathos that even in the face of blackmail, would have led her to suicide. Children may rail against the world, but children are easily subdued, and the Hedda seen on the BAM stage would have similarly capitulated. In contrast, the Hedda of Ibsen’s play displays this necessary pathos throughout—at the beginning of Act Two, Judge Brack comes in through the back way and Hedda, though seeing him, shoots at him with her pistol for fun. In Upton’s version though, she calls out to the judge, levels her pistol, then like a schoolgirl, cries “Bang!” and the two then share a little laugh. More important are the lines in the final act that Upton leaves out, when Hedda, learning of Lovborg’s suicide remarks, “At last, a deed worth doing!....I say there is beauty in this…Eilert Lovborg has made up his account with life, he has had the courage to do—the one right thing.” And then later, when pressed, she replies, “Oh what a sense of freedom it gives, this act of Eilert Lovborg’s…it gives a sense of freedom to know that a deed of deliberate courage is still possible in this world—a deed of spontaneous beauty.” Ibsen’s Hedda embodies a lifetime, not of being spoilt by always getting her way—as Upton writes her—but a lifetime of feeling not only that one has nothing to live for, but barring heroic deeds, that no one else has anything to live for either. Consequently, when cornered, by a blackmail, near-poverty, and an expecting pregnancy that all threaten her with both a loss of freedom and a scandal she dreads, Ibsen’s Hedda takes the only way out. Moreover, where Ibsen gives us a Hedda who shares beliefs that many hold at one or another point in their lives, Upton’s Hedda is completely unsympathetic in any regard, no more than one can understand or sympathize with a bratty child.

The direction and adaptation are equally disappointing for two of the other main characters, Tesman and Judge Brack. While Tesman is a pathetic character, I’ve never seen a production where the director so openly encourages the audience to spitefully laugh at him. Tesman is pathetic enough as written—not only does he spend a six month honeymoon making his beautiful bride wait in his hotel rooms while he scours libraries for research material, but he is overjoyed when his wife finally begins calling him by his first name! But this is obviously too subtle for Nevin, who not only makes him look and act like a taller Rick Moranis, but also makes him somewhat nasty in his negligence. By so doing, this production totally downplays his sincerity—not only of his love for Hedda (which is genuine), but of his devotion to his two aunts, and his untainted admiration for Lovborg as a man of greater ability. And this detracts from the production in two ways: it not only reinforces Hedda’s overt childishness when she mocks him (as he now deserves it), but it also makes him, at the end of the play, break out into what is by now an uncharacteristic sob when he learns of the death of his Aunt Rina.

Although this production gives glimpses of the kind of performance that Hugo Weaving could have given, his talent, like Blanchett’s, is wasted. In the original play, Brack competes equally for lines and stage time with the two other male parts. In this adaptation though, Upton has whittled his part away, emptying his character in the process. Most of his lines from (the original) acts one and two disappear, and you get no sense of him here, seeing him only as a threatening womanizer. This damages the production in the end, as Weaving has no other choice but to nearly yell his threats when he blackmails Hedda—and making this the very thin basis upon which she commits suicide. In Ibsen’s original, there is no need for such a clumsy approach, as Brack is more of a clever nuisance, only taking advantages where he can. Consequently, for Ibsen, Brack’s threats are necessarily muted ones, by themselves not insuperable, and only the final tipping point in Hedda’s decision to kill herself.

The production did contain some highlights, in addition to Blanchett’s performance. The director made one interesting and exciting choice, when she cleaved the play around the appearance of Lovborg. This served to further center the action around his character, making a nearly night and day performance between the two acts presented. Moreover, Aden Young’s performance as Lovborg added to this effect. He ignited the stage, and every character was completely warped by his presence. Indeed, Upton’s text-butchering left only his character unscathed—and Young gave it the full dimension that Lovborg’s character deserves.

Upton’s mutilation of Ibsen’s work ruined what could have been the theatrical production of the decade. He failed to do what a bare minimum requires: to capture the essence of the play one is trying to adapt. And this failure isn’t even to the audience’s advantage—because not only did they not get to see Hedda Gabler, but what they did see made no sense regardless. I did enjoy Blanchett’s performance—she did everything she could to inspire belief in this play. And in this, she left no doubt that she could play Hedda Gabler better than any other actress living—completely justifying why I went to see the play in the first place. But Upton’s unfortunate adaptation wastes her talent; and in the end, Blanchett gave a virtuoso performance, but of nothing.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Review of Luna Theater's production of Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" 2-18-06

I’ve always loved seeing plays at the Luna Theater. As a young company, they’ve tackled difficult works in their first 3 years, ranging from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, and Mamet’s torturous Oleanna. Every time I see one of their productions, I leave the small studio thinking, this is how good theatre should look. Their recent production is no exception. The Luna Theater has brought Philadelphia an impressive revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, a dark comedy of an intense love affair between an artist on the brink of triumph, and a drug-addled burnout who almost destroys her. Luna’s deft handling of this type of story makes this a play worth seeing, giving in two hours, a rollercoaster of nerve-wracking insanity played out across the stage.

A bit of the story: the play opens on Anna, a choreographer/dancer, in her NYC loft moments after hearing of the tragic death of her roommate and dance partner. Her roommate Larry, and boyfriend Burton attempt to console her, to no avail. She attends Robb’s funeral, and returns to NY, to try and piece her life back together and prepare a piece for a major dance collaborative. Enter Pale, Robb’s fiery, disturbed older brother, similar in appearance, who barges in one night and seduces Anna through their shared grief. Or so we’re meant to believe, as this initial seduction brings about the end of Anna’s relationship, Pale’s marriage, and nearly consumes them both.

The best performances of the night came from the spectacular Pale and Anna, played by Chris Fluck and Aaryn Kopp respectively. As Pale, Fluck dominates the entire production—as expected, since his character is what ignites and motivates the tension of the play. Fluck played Pale as both irritating and gritty, he moved across the stage like a prizefighter, and his energy consumed all of your attention. At times I couldn’t wait for him to get what (should have been) coming to him, at others, I so deeply bought into his burnt out despair that I understood his perspective. I think the script alone would’ve made me simply despise Pale—a Soprano’s reject of a character if ever one existed. But in this production, Fluck brought him to life, giving Pale a sincere vulnerability that made him almost recognizably human. Without his presence on the stage, the production seemed off-key, without purpose or life.

For the most part, Kopp adequately handled the role of the emotionally fragile dancer. Although I partly blame the play for this, watching her, I never got any sense or understanding of her motivations—and interacting with Pale, she seemed unconvincing. Her main fault was too much intensity—whenever she spoke, she did so with the same pitch and nearly the same volume. While this definitely increased the tension when she finally rebuffed Pale in Act Three, it gave the general impression that she was acting out the lines well without a solid understanding of her character.

The performances by the other two actors suffer both by comparison and their own ineffectiveness. Patrick Doran as Anna’s boyfriend Burton appears flat, and never giving the audience a reason to care about his character, consequently never finds a place in the structure of the play. Eric Courtwright, plays Anna’s roommate Larry as the stereotyped gay character—overly dramatic and flamboyant, and utterly annoying at best. While no doubt these types exist, seeing an actor perform this way makes you question his competency in acting, and the director’s decision to allow this portrayal in his production.

Some of the problems with the two minor characters I blame on the text. Both Larry and Burton, as written, merely serve as expedients or problems in the developing relationship between Pale and Anna. Burton has little reason to exist in this play, as Burn This is not a love triangle plot, nor does Burton’s character provide anything but an aggravating thorn in the mind of every audience member who cannot fathom the behavior of Anna’s character. But most of the fault in these two resides in the actors performances. As I already pointed out, Courtwright’s gay roommate sounds one note throughout the entire play, whether he’s relating information, telling a story, or attempting to seduce the other male characters. And though the entire character of Burton is written as background only, Doran only ever plays him in that manner. There is a complete absence of emotion on his part throughout, except rage at the end—which, while having volume, gives no subtlety or hints of a fuller characterization.

However, if I could change anything, I would change the text—at times, it’s nearly unreadable, even for these talented actors. Certain phrases, intended to portray mania or desperation, are overly long, and run together, which hampers understanding (and slowing them down would ruin their effect). At other times, the characters (especially Larry) tell anecdotes of no import, and the play itself completely lacks both a plot and a recognizable theme. An attempt is made, when Larry, trying to explain Anna’s otherwise confusing behavior remarks, “so long as one’s working, personal relationships don’t matter.” But this theme never manifests itself throughout the play, and there is no single idea which comprehensively unites the action.

That said, there is action, and plenty of tension to hold your attention. The play moved well under Gregory Scott Campbell’s direction, and there were no points where a lapse in the action betrayed the tension playing out on stage. In this, Campbell’s apt direction helped the play—and while anyone (especially myself) may have disagreed with the intentions motivating the character’s behaviors, no one could mistake their urgency, the force given them by the intensity this production gave to Wilson’s script. In the best sense of the phrase, I could not wait for this play to end. For while I didn’t care for or identify with any of the characters, and was baffled by their choices, the portrayal by Pale and Anna gripped my interest so tightly that I simmered impatiently in my seat waiting to see what would happen next. I can’t think of higher praise for a production overall—I hated these characters as written, but the intense direction and two lead actors still captured my interest . And this is what made for another potent and exciting evening of theater, done once again in solid fashion by the Luna Theater Company.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Review of Player's Club of Swarthmore production of "Arcadia" 3-18-2006

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is perhaps the most original and brilliant play of our time. The action of the play shifts back and forth between the early 19th and late 20th centuries—the place, an English manor house named Sidley Park, remains the setting for both periods. Part of Stoppard’s play centers around the transformation of the Manor’s garden—one in transition from a state of classical perfection, “Nature as God intended,” and into a representation of the Gothic novel—one that is incomprehensible, horrific, and undelightedly picturesque. Observing the change, one of the characters remarks, “Here I am in Arcadia,” emphasizing her displeasure at the contrast between the beauty of her estate and the shape it is slowly undertaking. That line describes my attitude towards this production perfectly. On the one hand, Stoppard has given us one of the most beautifully inspired pieces of drama written during the second half of the 20th century. On the other hand, the cracked mirror of this production gives no good likeness to the eloquence of what he has written on the page.

The director, George Ainslie, could have easily sidestepped the main fault that plagues this production. He should not have asked this cast to take on heavy English accents while speaking their lines. So much of Stoppard’s dialogue is lost because of this. During the scenes that take place in the 19th century, two of the actors completely muffle their voices—James Hulme, as Captain Brice, while thankfully a minor character, did not read a single line that I could understand. Emily Kaplan, playing the central character Thomasina, for as well as she performed otherwise, became very difficult to hear every time she moved to the back of the stage, which was often. I should note that I sat in the third row of a theater filled to a third of its capacity.

Only two of the actors succeeded at all in mastering their accents: the young tutor Septimus, acted very admirably by Christopher Salazar; and the Mistress of the Estate, Lady Croom, played by Michelle Lynn Owens. Salazar’s accent is the lightest of all those present, one that he maintains along with a dour, amusing, and sly attitude throughout. Owens manages the accent because she only gives her character two settings—domineering, and loud. Moreover, in the play Lady Croom is Thomasina’s mother, so you would naturally assume that they had the same accent, but not in this production. In Ainslie’s Arcadia, the mother screams her lines with the arrogance of the landed nobility while the daughter intones a demure half breed of Cockney and Irish. The use of any accents at all nearly ruins this production.

What saves is twofold; the already mentioned brilliance of the text, and the solid acting by the remainder of the cast. Salazar gave the best performance of the night, easily switching personae between stern tutor, meddlesome lover, acerbic critic, and seductively aspiring master of the estate—moving his affections equally (and easily) between his young protégé, Thomasina, and her mother, Lady Croom. Donna McFadden, playing the sardonic, untrusting author Hannah Jarvis, also turns a solid performance. McFadden, in particular, gives a degree of depth to Hannah that does the play justice—starting off cold and cynical, and ending full of romance and excitement. Both of these actors equally well anchor the production during their respective time periods in the play.

Most of the rest of the cast also do a solid job, succeeding both in their timing and delivery of the lines. This is no mean feat either; Stoppard’s Arcadia contains a great deal of dialogue about mathematics, literary criticism, and the value of science and the arts. Incredibly, all of this is written to entertain—and even a well-done staged reading of this play will delight any audience. But to present the text as a play requires a bit of skill, as the actors could get tripped up, or becoming boring and pedantic while discussing any of these subjects. English accents aside, the concerned does make this play enjoyable, notably Seth Stocking as the mathematician Val Coverly, and Emily Kaplan playing the gifted young student, Thomasina. At every point, Stocking is believable, although his anger is a bit less than muted,; and Kaplan plays her role in earnest—although not to the extent that by the end of the play her acting let’s you know that she’s aged from thirteen to seventeen.

The only real casting problem came in the form of Bernard Nightingale, whom Stoppard writes as a rakish, somewhat pompous, and very charming English Don. As written, no one in the audience should feel surprise as he cultivates the affections of both another successful author in his field—even one whose book he had previously damned—and his seduction of an admiring young girl half his age. But the actor playing this part, listed only as “McKeever”, while credible in the first sense, is clearly not in the other. Except for garbling half of his lines, he plays the pomposity of the seasoned academic very well. But at the same time, he’s too old by ten to believe that an attractive and eager young girl would fall for him. More to the point, little of that attraction is made comprehensible by McKeever or Rose Fairley as the young love interest Chloe Coverly.

Overall, Ainslie has done more good than harm to this play. The various subject matter remains lively, the transitions between time periods run smoothly, and the cast contributes what seems an appreciative and earnest understanding of Stoppard’s play. Without the accents, and a few minor alterations, the director could have made this into a very solid production, one I would have recommended to anyone. That aside, I'm not telling you to avoid seeing this play. Stoppard’s text nearly makes seeing any production of Arcadia worthwhile. However, if you do go, call ahead, and ask them, "will the cast use English accents tonight?" Then tell them that you will come if the cast promises not to. It's the only way you'll get to understand and enjoy the dialogue into which Stoppard has poured so much of his brilliance.