All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Romantic scientists and romantic poets made the early 19th century a period of such magnificent ferment, particularly in England, it is delicious fun to see Tom Stoppard so artfully contrast it with a different mode of study and scholarship, late 20th century pedantry, in his sage and witty play, “Arcadia,” now being given a brightly forthright performance at Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater.
Intrigue haunts both eras in Stoppard’s slap at academic corruption. On the Croom estate in 1809, serious discussions of mathematics and physics are disrupted by much more juicy, if much less intellectually crucial, commotion about whom from the household was caught in adulterous flagrante with which houseguest whose husband now wants to fight a duel over her questionable honor. In the same setting in 1993, which is close enough to stand for today, an ambitious university lecturer arrives with feverish anxiety to see if he can prove the 1809 adulterer was none other than the pantheon poet, Lord Byron.
Dalliance in the Croom gazebo turns potentially momentous mathematical discovery into marital and moral mayhem. Prospect of an eager researcher’s ‘eureka’ and the academic lionization that will follow it converts orderly, meticulous study into a con man’s compromise, fame and credit being more valued by one professor than truth or accuracy.
This is Stoppard, so ideas swirl giddily amid brittlely funny lines and well-crafted comic business. Delight derives from hearing Stoppard’s 19th century characters express the exciting curiosity and experimentation of their age and the honest scholars of the 20th century attempting to cow their unscrupulous colleague into upright probity.
Kathryn MacMillan’s verbally supple cast, led by Maxwell Eddy, Kittson O’Neill, Joe Guzmán, and Daniel Fredrick, uniformly keep Lantern’s “Arcadia” a heady contest of wills and wit that leavens the massive theoretical content Stoppard includes and allows a comedy about education, class, and human foibles to shine through.
Because I have an appetite, fairly ravenous actually, for the kind of scientific questioning the tutor, Septimus Hodge, and his pupil, the Croom daughter, Thomasina Coverly, bat about in the 19th century sequences, and for the rigorous legitimacy true scholars, such as the horticultural historian, Hannah Jarvis, and the dabbler into family lore, Valentine Coverly, represent in opposition to the willing fudger of facts Guzmán plays in the 20th, I enjoy passages in which mathematical constructs that hint ingenuously at atomic theory and the properties of heat decades ahead of their time merge with an insistence on verifiable research, and I thank MacMillan for giving those sequences equal weight with the more comic and humorously naughty portions in Stoppard’s play. I risk a condescending “oh, what a good, intellectually curious boy am I” moment by adding that my nerdy obsession with the era from Newton to Darwin, including Mr. Banks at Kew, is not shared by all, and at times while watching “Arcadia” with pleasure, I wondered if MacMillan was not trying audience patience by giving philosophical discussion such full sway. For subjects like the repeating pattern of nature or the transformative properties of heat, I have a tolerance I know is not universal.
How much emphasis to put on arcane information is one of the challenges a director faces when staging Stoppard. I admire MacMillan’s fearlessness in letting the unseen but much spoken of Pierre de Fermat, Capability Brown, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Lord Byron occupy so much stage time and have their places in history and culture expressed so clearly and thoroughly. At times, though, I fear Thomasina going on about her revolutionary equation, one Valentine in the 20th century says would take more than a lifetime to complete without the assistance of a modern computer, or Hannah browbeating Guzmán’s Bernard Nightingale into some semblance of scholarly decency bogs down the pace of MacMillan’s production and causes attention to drift until an instance of flirtation or a laugh line about Byron or fads in landscape architecture restore focus. Suffice it to say I was rapt, reveling in characters’ ideas and arguments. MacMillan and company engrossed me and brought Stoppard’s pair of worlds to vivid life. I can only wish all who attend enjoy the same experience.
“Arcadia” is one of Stoppard’s more brilliant plays, perhaps the best in a series that includes “Night and Day,” “Hapgood,” “Indian Ink,” and “The Invention of Love,” a group I call the “corruption exposés” because they deal comically with how some entity or institution that influences the way people live is demeaned by politicians, professors, or practitioners that pervert the objective honesty of journalism, science, humanity, literature, and romance.
“Arcadia” tackles the debasing of education. Septimus is a great teacher, but he approaches subjects cynically with his student, Thomasina, a genius who did not live long enough or have her genuinely groundbreaking achievement understood enough to be lauded for it. Septimus can also be duplicitous by praising a dilettante to his face while excoriating his work in a published review. His classroom is a laboratory and seminar that covers everything, including facts of life. By contrast, Bernard Nightingale is an outright villain, an academic delinquent who, in his hurry to discover and earn the fame for a great scholarly find, is totally willing to ignore he has no proof for his attention-getting assertion, even when Hannah and Valentine point out his errors in deduction and logic.
Nightingale makes you wonder how blatantly alleged academics twist a theory into being just to earn a credit and bolster their publication rate and speaker’s fees. He is the intellectual nightmare that brings clarity to the doubt people have about claims scholars make on flimsy or circumstantial evidence of the kind Nightingale believes he’s unearthed about Byron at Croom. He is Stoppard’s fictional example that clarifies and perhaps justifies potentially real instances of preserving scholarly legitimacy, such as the current case of Purdue University president and former Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, controversially questioning the use of Howard Zinn’s often challenged text in his school’s history classes. (Personally, I think people should know what Zinn purports as a springboard to discussion in comparison with other texts by less subjective writers. That exploration into range of thought is what makes an educational institution a ‘university.’ Taking Zinn’s analyses and interpretations for Gospel and teaching them as absolute history, rather than as one viewpoint about history, does give one pause and Daniels a reason for taking action to quell professors who would take Zinn’s word for the sole rendition of all that happened in America.)
You can see how much I like Stoppard as a presenter of ideas worthy of airing and of consideration.
I like him first and foremost as an entertainer. His dialogue soars with wit and wisdom as much as it does with intellect. Stoppard has a knack for making his characters humorous whether he’s depicting the astute and sarcastic Septimus; the imperious upholder of both standards and the status quo, Lady Croom; the competent modern woman who suffers no fool, gladly or not, Hannah; the persistent boor, Nightingale, the obtuse, old-fashioned, easily flattered, and easily vexed Chater; the romantic Chloe Coverly; the observant and frank Thomasina Coverly; the earnest and charming Valentine Coverly; or the shy but attentive Gus Coverly. Each of these characters has a comic trait that adds froth, merriment, and cleverness to “Arcadia.”
There is the takeaway. For all of my talk and admiration of Stoppard’s brilliant dialogue and the Lantern cast’s talent for making it ring true and animatedly, MacMillan’s “Arcadia” entertains because it is first and foremost a comedy about people at odds, some of whom are romantically inclined towards each other although social and intellectual matters may necessitate, and even favor, them staying apart.
It’s the laughs and revelations that make “Arcadia” as fresh and charming as its name implies. Septimus Hodge, Valentine Coverly, Lady Croom, and, to some extent, Hannah Jarvis are outrightly funny. Chater’s bluffness and mutability renders him comic, as does the stolid severity of Lady Croom’s brother, Captain Brice, and the self-serving but obsequiously humble landscape architect, Mr. Noakes.
The great part about Stoppard is he includes the math and philosophy and all of the heavy matter you could want, but he makes them an added treat woven within a work that is engagingly amusing and impressively insightful beyond its learned details. The plot is enough to propel the play without all of the ferment about Fermat or minutia about the Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb. You learn a lot from paying attention to what Stoppard puts in his margins, much as Pierre de Fermat wrote his theorem in the margin of his copy of Diophantus’s “Arithmetica” with a short note saying he worked out the proof but does not have the room in the margin to write it. Mischievous Stoppard has Thomasina declare that it’s obvious Fermat was joking and wrote the note just to drive generations mad trying to prove his idea (finally proven in 1994!).
Learning, of course, is a byproduct of the adroitness with which Stoppard frames his plot. “Arcadia’s” main purpose is to entertain, and MacMillan’s production does that with style and verve. MacMillan’s actors exude the sharpness of the characters they play. Eddy’s Septimus and O’Neill’s Hannah anchor the two periods Stoppard depicts, and you find you are in the presence of people you respect and delight in hearing.
MacMillan keeps everything flowing easily, one table serving as both Septimus’s and Hannah’s workspace, so little has to be changed as characters from the 19th century retreat to give characters from the 20th century the stage. Transition is so even as to be seamless, and you quickly gather or pick up on the discussion in each century as it begins and resumes.
Stoppard peppers his script with lots of amorous teases, especially between Septimus and Thomasina and Hannah and Valentine. He also has a lot going on in the corners, such as Lady Croom showing confusion about why a garden she likes has to be re-landscaped to one she considers a horror, Septimus teaching Thomasina to dance, Hannah waltzing with the shy Gus who displays the crush he has on her, and Thomasina proceeding with her attempt to draw a leaf by plotting its mathematical points or wondering why if she stirs jams in her pudding, she can’t turn the spoon in the opposite direction and put the mixture back as it was originally. Stoppard also amuses by giving both Septimus and Valentine a pet tortoise, one called Plautus and the other called Lightning, a key to Valentine’s sense of humor. Both tortoises are represented at the Lantern by one authentic-looking rubber figure that remains on the desk shared through the ages.
Maxwell Eddy is a poised Septimus Hodge, confident and quick-minded with a nimble tongue and a sense of humor about all that confronts him, including the angry and violent Ezra Chater and Captain Brice.
With Thomasina, Eddy’s Septimus is both gentle, solicitous, and teasing. He knows he has the girl’s affection, and he is aware of her sharp, intuitive mind. He doesn’t want to praise Thomasina so far that she might become complacent and not try as hard to impress with her mathematical gifts. Septimus is also aware of their differences in class and age.
There’s an appealing air of arrogance and amusement in Eddy’s performance. It sets Septimus up as a character whose intellect is greater than that of others, even if his station is lower. He is, after all, at Croom as an employee while Chater, his wife, Captain Brice, and the unseen Lord Byron are there as guests and as social peers of the Coverly family.
Eddy’s Septimus also establishes the code of scholarly order that Stoppard needs to make his point about Bernard Nightingale. Septimus may not take marriage vows or other social conventions too seriously, but science and philosophy are important to him, and he will not compromise where their fidelity is concerned.
Hannah Jarvis is the late 20th century counterpart to Septimus. She is more self-contained and cool, in the sense of being diffident, not in the sense of being ‘hep’ (although Hannah is surprisingly up-to-date).
Hannah has a sense of humor, but she’s not interested in showing it every second or in using it to constantly entertain. She’s at Croom to write a history of its garden and, in particular, to talk about a hermitage where an actual hermit lived in the 19th century after Lady Croom’s landscaper, Noakes, changed her garden from a formal, felicitous glade in the style of Capability Brown to a folly garden including underbrush and ruins suggested by the 16th century paintings of Salvator Rosa, whose work is currently a featured exhibition at Sarasota’s Ringling Museum.
Kittson O’Neill captures the efficiency and fastidiousness of Hannah. O’Neill conveys a person is all business and who has no patience for nonsense, although she is able to kid around with the Croom children — Valentine, who has made a study of the game books at Croom and can locate one Hannah needs in an instant, Chloe, and the silent Gus.
O’Neill is especially good as Hannah battles Nightingale, who she finds mildly slimy on sight and towards whom she feels less friendly when she learns he wrote a scathing review of her book about Caroline Lamb.
Nightingale is a Byron expert and longs to reveal a fascinating new bit of information at an upcoming Byron conference at which he’s speaking. He thinks he found the ace he needs by placing Lord Byron at Croom on April 10, 1809 and surmising he had a duel by pistol with Chater, who was avenging his wife’s seduction.
Joe Guzmán plays him as a man who is more worried about the impression his suit or haircut makes than if the information he imparts is correct and verifiable.
Nightingale is the scholar as hustler. He is not the quiet and thoughtful reader and organizer of facts Valentine is. He certainly isn’t the careful, inquisitive professional Hannah is. He’s a man out to make or maintain a reputation, and he is reluctant to let the truth stand in the way of his good story, especially if no one is likely to stand up and refute him.
Guzmán displays the right degree of ego and chutzpah. Even as Hannah and Valentine make mincemeat of his ideas, and Chloe looks at him with pity and empathy for the intellectual shellacking he’s taking, Guzmán’s Nightingale will keep pressing that he is probably right and that the documents at hand, though not definitive, are close enough for him to present them as fresh news at the Byron gathering.
Daniel Fredrick makes Valentine seem so natural and pleasantly self-content. He is convincingly upper crust with that sense of softness people attain when they spend their days doing cultural pursuits amid cultured people.
Valentine, like Septimus and his ancestor, Thomasina, is a polymath. He is as versed in mathematics and computers as he is about who visited Croom and what game they shot or caught. Fredrick’s performance is sweet and makes a case for gentlemanly ways. His Valentine also has a way with a joke and can be quite incisive or ironic, as in calling his tortoise Lightning.
Charlotte Northeast hits the right note of hauteur as Lady Croom, a woman of taste and breeding who is not fond of new-fangled ideas but is willing to go along with Septimus’s notions about education and Noakes’s about landscape design. Northeast can put a commanding tone in her voice when Lady Croom wants to use her authority as mistress of the house. She also has a way with the Lady’s sardonic ripostes, some of which are humorously self-effacing.
Alex Boyle is precocious as 13-year-old Thomasina and more aware of her agile mind and sexual leanings as the 16-year-old rendition of the character. Boyle is excellent at showing Thomasina’s irrepressible curiosity and interest in any experiments or scientific research Septimus does. She is also quite good at explaining Thomasina’s great mathematical hypothesis in a way the audience immediately understands.
Trevor William Fayle, who did such a fine job in Azuka’s “Tigers Be Still” this spring, gives another sharp performance as Gus in “Arcadia.” He gives the character an air of kindness and generosity that says more than Gus’s bashfulness.
“Sharp” may seem like an odd word to describe a mute performance in which a character never speaks and seems to have lost the ability to speak. Fayle, though, is effective in sending mooncalf looks to Hannah on several occasions and in generally conveying his character’s wants and needs. His Gus is always observant, always looking out for how others are behaving, sometimes admiring Hannah’s ease or Nightingale’s ambitions, sometimes surprising Hannah with flowers or a more overt sign that he loves her.
Bradley K. Wrenn shows a lot of contradictory traits in a small window of time as Ezra Chater, a man who wants satisfaction for an offense when you first meet him but who can be flattered easily from his purpose by wanting to be everyone’s best friend. Wrenn is excellent at going from anger and resentment to peaceful thoughts and winning politeness.
Mal Whyte shows deference and frustration as the gardener, Noakes. Nathan Foley is one who likes to spring to action as the angry and rough-hewn Captain Brice. Angela Smith is winning at Chloe Coverly.
Meghan Jones’s set works well for both historic periods. Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes evoke the eras depicted.
“Arcadia” runs through Sunday, November 2, at Lantern Theatre, located in St. Stephen’s Church at 10th and Ludlow, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Saturday, October 18. Tickets ranges from $39 to $22 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or visiting www.lanterntheater.org.