This review was originally published to Broadway World on April 10, 2016
Presidential candidates are not the only ones taking to the debate stage these days. In Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, characters stand and challenge each other, far more diplomatically than our friends running for higher office, on a long list of mathematical, scientific, and philosophical theories. Characters with strong conviction passionately defending those convictions can make for the type of thought-provoking theatre that stays with you long after curtain call.
Two timelines, separated by nearly three centuries, run linearly throughout the course of the play. Opening on a Derbyshire, England estate in the 19th century, we meet 13 year old mathematician prodigy Thomasina Coverly and her tutor Septimus Hodge as they exchange in dialogue that surrounds the play's central theme of academics and sex. The second generation in Stoppard's play is present day Derbyshire or 1993, when the play was written. This production seems intentionally vague in its depiction of present day. Researcher Hannah Jarvis begins working with her literary rival, Bernard Nightingale, on a new project which involves investigating the Coverly family during the 19th century. This propels the articulated action to jump back and forth between eras as the past and present begin to learn from one another.
Unconventional casting of a few roles extended beyond what is normally seen in this style of theatre. Jade Wheeler's cheery performance as a member of the Coverly lineage works very well here. Same goes for Celeste Olivia in the lead role of Hannah Jarvis. I would challenge that the bigger risk for this character was not in the casting, but in deconstructing Hannah Jarvis's appearance. I have previously seen a production in which Hannah was in business professional attire adorned with matching jewelry and accessories. Here, Hannah lets down her hair and walks about barefoot revealing the rawness of Hannah and her battle with the rejection of emotion and romance.
Matthew Zahnzinger shines effervescently as Valentine Coverly. Zahnzinger's fully embodied performance reigns in voice and physicality with an onstage presence that rivals his peers. He also conveys the best grasp of the play's language- his scenes were the most lucid. Sarah Oakes Muirhead works fine as Lady Croom despite hair and costumes making her look like Thomasina's contemporary. Kira Patterson's performance of the precocious Thomasina was not as successful. The actress focused her concentration on walking and gesturing like a young child and lacked the poise someone with that brain capacity and upbringing would surely have. This colored Thomasina less savant-like which made the moment where Septimus releases her as his student difficult to believe.
If theatre can be measured by the same satisfying feeling that follows a delicious meal, then Tom Stoppard's script is the aged rib-eye from The Capital Grille. Arcadia is often referred as a masterpiece with limitless theatrical potential and offers actors delicious, well-developed roles to dive into. This makes it disappointing that The Nora Theatre Company manages to harness only half of the play's potential. Under the direction of Lee Mikeska Gardner, Arcadia traverses at cruise control pacing, but flat lines in rhythm resulting in a loss of Stoppard's cadence. The overzealous staging, motivated less on action and more on trying to posture around a table, distracted from the digestion of the heavy dialogue.
Arcadia is no stranger to failed expectations. Even Broadway is not safe with this play. Both 1995 and 2011 New York productions experienced some of the same flaws seen here. In its Broadway premier, Vincent Canby of The New York Times noted that "there are real difficulties with this production" when talking about a cast of venerable, yet overwhelmed, actors struggling to project Stoppard's verbose script efficiently. He went on to say the production "looks gorgeous and is true to the letter and spirit of the Stoppard words, but it should be better." Similar remarks were made by Ben Brantley, also in The New York Times, when he called the 2011 revival "half terrific" and "slightly miscast."
This history of challenges from the play's two most prominent productions in our country poses many questions. How can one of the finest English comedies, while appearing brilliantly on paper, continually struggle to find a cast capable of bringing it to life? I've intentionally left the names from both casts out until now; 1995 featured Tony winners Blair Brown and Robert Sean Leonard in addition to stage veteran Victor Garber; 2011 gave us Byron Jennings, the transformative Raul Esparza, Grace Gummer and both productions had Billy Crudup (first as Septimus and then as Nightengale.) Clearly, neither production lacked quality talent, yet both struggled to receive the praise garnered during its London run.
Dramatic theory aside, Arcadia is a good fit for the academic environment of Cambridge. It will service the math and science professionals of MIT, who are less familiar with the craft of theatre far better than groomed theatregoers, who may wonder if Arcadia requires essential components to make it work properly. Perhaps this quandary will be left up to the Thomasina of our generation to determine.