In Pursuit of Truth and Beauty: Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia' at SLU
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a fascinating and deeply intelligent play. St. Louis University and director Lucy Cashion are giving it an elegant, beautiful production (playing through November 20). Conceive, if you can, a historical whodunnit where sex is blended with mathematics, the struggle between the rational and the Romantic eras is reenacted, and where Lord Byron, landscape architecture, and the second law of thermodynamics are central themes.
Arcadia is not for lazy audiences. The wit is sometimes subtle and quick, the language at times demanding. If you've no idea what the Age of Enlightenment or the Romantic Movement was, if you've never heard of Byron, if you've no concept of scientific inquiry -- then perhaps you should stay at home. But if you like to think, then careful attention to Arcadia will be bountifully repaid. In some ways it's like Shakespeare: it's worth reading before you see it; it's worth seeing several times. It is so rich that you'll keep getting more and more. But stay alert; eat lightly before you come -- and prepare to listen fast. This is my favorite modern play.
What does it mean to be the inheritors of rich scientific and artistic legacies? What does it mean to be human in a doomed universe? Listen! Watch!
The play is set in an English country estate and shifts fluidly between 1809 and the present. Lucy Cashion has startled us in recent years with some wonderfully inventive avant-garde productions; here she shows an equally skillful hand in a rather more conventional mode. The set by designer Dan Giedeman is simplicity itself: one long, long beautiful oak table, a few chairs, an antique music stand. Far at the back against a softly-lit cyclorama sit the entire cast of twelve, frozen in natural poses -- as if in an aquatint. A piano, off-stage in most productions, here sits in an upstage corner. The characters step into the scenes as they flow, afterward retiring to their chairs at the rear. The entire production is suffused with a spare, graceful beauty. Lou Bird does lovely work with costumes -- especially for the nineteenth-century characters.
In 1809 we meet Thomasina Coverly (daughter of the estate, thirteen) and her tutor young Septimus Hodge. Marilyn Arnold is quite perfect as the ingenuous Thomasina, the lovely adolescent mathematical prodigy who discovers fractal mathematics -- the geometry of nature -- a hundred and sixty years before Benoit Mandelbrot. Miss Arnold is filled with light grace. She conveys a convincing keen innocent curiosity about everything from why we can't un-stir the jam in our rice pudding to "What is carnal embrace?"
- Ryan Lawson-Maeske gives a strong performance as Septimus. He masters the tutor's quick defensive wit and his arrogance-veiled-in-irony.
Other good performances are given by:
- Ross Rubright as Chater, the absurd and often-cuckolded dreadful poet,
- Blake Howard as Noakes, the very arty landscape architect who is converting the estate's gardens from the Classical to the Romantic style. In his flowing coat and broad hat he is particularly evocative of that period and profession.
- Alyssa Still as Lady Croom, mistress of the estate. Miss Still edges Lady Croom just a bit too much toward the nose-in-the-air snob -- a type found more in the nouveau riche than in an ancient noble family. This is an intelligent, if modestly educated woman. She is, after all, Thomasina's mother.
- Quincy Shenk gives us a very nicely military Captain Brice.
- Evan Garber makes the patient butler Jellaby rather endearing.
And now the modern-day characters:
- Parvuna Sulaiman gives an outstanding performance as Hanna, the garden historian. She brings a beautiful face and voice to the role, and brims with intelligence, subtlety and a sharp wit.
- Andy O'Brien plays Bernard, the insufferable Byron scholar. He flourishes his intellect like a saber. Very good work indeed.
- Alex Fyles is most impressive in the role of Val, older son to the estate. It's such an utterly natural, confident performance. His sheer excitement about science and mathematics makes one long and difficult scene really work.
- Sarah Richardson plays Chloe, daughter to the estate, with bright energy.
- Michael Lanham plays the fifteen-year-old Coverly son -- in both eras. He gives us an articulate, confidant Augustus (1809). Gus (modern) has been mute since the age of five. This and his terror of loud noises and conflict would seem to place Gus somewhere on the autism spectrum. Lanham does good work with both lads. Moreover (unless my eyes deceived me) it is he who plays the very lovely piano passages -- including some Chopin -- that support the play throughout. Fine work!
Good acting abounds. There was, I think, only one significant lack: I missed a sense of tenderness from Septimus toward Thomasina. He is brusque, even intellectually combative with others in the play, but this will not do with Thomasina. There is a magic in this girl of which Septimus is fully aware. His proper formality as her tutor must not quite successfully mask his occasional flush of awe as she leads his mind into remarkable territories. And a tenderness is needed to support the final scene where, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Thomasina yearns for more than a tutor's sort of love.
There are, count them, five studies under way in this play. They are in:
- the history of gardens, where Hanna delves into the Sidley archives on the trail of a mysterious hermit,
- the history of literature, where Bernard so desperately hopes he's discovered a Byron scandal,
- the behavior of grouse populations, where Val's computer simulations are drawn from the estate's old "game books," and
- the mathematics of nature, where Thomasina's genius outshines them all.
What's the fifth study? Well, it overarches the others and is undertaken by just about everybody. It's the study of just what the heck is "carnal knowledge" and how does it effect the pursuit of truth.
Arcadia, under Lucy Cashion's gifted direction, yields a most satisfying evening. It examines the various paths to truth -- the artistic, the scientific, the intuitive. And it celebrates that wonderful trait which distinguishes genus homo sapiens from all others -- not just our hunger for knowledge, but that primal joy in the pursuit of knowledge, that dance of the intellect. We live in a world subject to the second law of thermodynamics: i. e., despite local eddies of order, in the long run disorder increases. We will ultimately arrive at the "heat death" of the universe, when everything is cosmologically "luke warm" and time ceases. What are we to do? "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning," says Septimus, "we will be alone on an empty shore." "Then," says Thomasina, "we will dance."