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.

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