Reviewed by James Karas
That is the first bit of advice you should take to heart if you got to the Shaw Festival and see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It is produced in the small Studio Theatre and it is sold out but don’t hesitate to use bribery and corruption to get a ticket.
The recommendation to pay attention is given freely and generously for your own good. Arcadia is a brilliant, brainy, funny, stimulating and challenging play and by paying strict attention, you will increase your chances of getting most of the lines, references and ideas that it throws at you like darts. OK, look at it as mental gymnastics – it will make you smarter.
Arcadia takes place in 1809-1812 and the present with alternating scenes between the two periods but all done on one set. The 19th century characters live in Sidley Park, a stately mansion in England, and deal with science and art; the encounter of classicism with romanticism; theories of the universe; theories about garden designs and a few other such light subjects. Stoppard has the genius to deal with such subjects and make them entertaining and funny.
The characters who live in the present are researching the 19th century occupants of Sidley Park including the possibility that Lord Byron stayed there and killed a minor poet named Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker) in a duel after seducing his wife.
Stoppard provides a number of juicy characters and director Eda Homes takes advantage of them and gives us a fast-paced and extremely well done journey of wit and tantalizing ideas.
Thomasina Coverly (Kate Besworth) and Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) dominate the 19th century scenes. She is a teenage genius who argues against the Newtonian view of the universe and he is her tutor who tries to keep up with her. It is not all intellectual pursuits – far from it. Septimus has seduced Chater’s wife (who hasn’t?) and there are sexual as well as intellectual liaisons.
The synergies displayed by the actors, like the wit and cerebral pyrotechnics, are breathtaking. Besworth and Hodge drive the play with Nicole Underhay providing a sexy and splendid Lady Crooom.
The present-day characters are engaged in detective work as Bernard Nightingale (Patrick McManus) tries to piece together a story about Lord Byron. McManus is given free range by Stoppard and Holmes to emote to the point of deliriously delightful overacting as does to a lesser but equally enjoyable extent Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis, a popular author.
Arcadia is a deliciously complex play and requires sustained attention by the actors and it stands Holmes in good stead that she is able to marshal the company into a marvelous ensemble providing theatre of the mind and the heart at its best. I was so wrapped up in the plot, the wit, the histrionic speed that I almost did not notice that most of the English accents were less than perfect.
GO SEE IT.
That is my second piece of advice given once again freely and most generously and solely for the purpose of directing you to an exceptional theatrical experience.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard runs in repertory until September 7, 2013 at the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.