nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
November 6, 2005
In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Septimus Hodge tutors a young pupil named Thomasina Coverly at Sidley Park, an English manor that in 1809 stands athwart the fading positivism of the Enlightenment and the burgeoning subjectivism of the Romantic Movement. Hodge discovers he has awakened the latent genius of Thomasina, a 13-year-old prodigy who is on the verge of apprehending the second law of thermodynamics and modern chaos theory. Like the Romanticism that was coming into style, Thomasina’s discovery threatens to sweep away the optimistic belief in order and progress that Hodge has based his life and teachings on.
In a parallel tale set in the present on the same English manor, three scholars unaware of Thomasina’s existence sift through the history of the Coverly estate. Bernard Nightingale is investigating the goings-on of Lord Byron, who he suspects to have been a guest of the Coverlys in 1809. Hannah Jarvis is trying to discover the identity of the mysterious hermit of Sidley Park, while Valentine Coverly (a descendent of the 19th century Coverlys, who still lives at Sidley Park) is using the family game book to create a mathematical calculation that will enable him to determine the behavior of grouse. Meanwhile, in both 1809 and the present, the pageant of life continues behind the scenes and around the protagonists as every step towards understanding leads to greater and more puzzling enigmas. What emerges is a celebration of the human existence from the point of view of the skeptic: meaning and fulfillment are found in the hopeless but essential quest for understanding amidst the individual triumphs and tragedies inside of a doomed universe.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is both glorious in its scope and beautiful in its construction, and it is easy to see why it seems to have continually grown in popularity and esteem over the past decade. Conceptions of philosophy, psychology, cosmology, physics, biology, poetry, history, art, botany, landscaping, engineering, theology, and morality are weaved together into an elegant tapestry that is made compelling, both intellectually and emotionally, through the brilliance of Stoppard’s prose and ideas. Still, Arcadia is a delicate instrument that one can easily see come crashing down from the weight of its philosophical preoccupations if it were not handled with adequate talent and skill.
Happily, both are in ample supply in QED’s flagship production of Arcadia at the Greenwich Street Theatre. First-time director Zander Teller has delivered a simple and elegant version of the play that both puts forth its intellectual concepts in a clear and compelling manner, and captures the emotional core of the relationships and personalities of its characters. The result is a perfectly paced evening that earns every minute of its three-hour running time. Dov Lebowitz-Nowak’s lighting and set and Melissa Daghini’s costumes support the show admirably. Lebowitz-Nowak’s thematic interpretation of the play on the set’s floor—parquet with panels blackened in a random but increasing pattern—is a particularly striking touch.
Much of the success of the evening can be attributed to the many fine performances in this production, but among the most memorable is Rachel Jablin as the irrepressible Thomasina. Cheerfully defying the doomsday implications of her mathematical predictions, Jablin’s Thomasina is engrossing and completely convincing in her displays of exuberant youthfulness and mathematical gifts. In contrast, there is an element of world-weariness to Andrew Rein’s inhabitation of the role of Septimus that jars with the descriptions of his lustful antics behind the scenes, but which still makes for an unexpectedly compelling interpretation. Septimus here seems almost to foresee the demise of his world order, which perhaps lessens the irony of his eventual fate but heightens its sense of tragedy. Also impressive is Micah Freedman in the difficult and not-so-flashy role of Valentine, bringing clarity to his scientific explanations and compelling warmth to his personality.
Is there room in New York for another off-off-Broadway theatre company doing the works of established and acclaimed English-language playwrights? If the result is work of this quality, then the answer is yes. Judging by its first endeavor, QED has all the makings to be a welcome and successful addition to the New York theatre landscape.