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ISSUE 119 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/14/2006

Audience finds bliss in 'Arcadia'

By Matt Trucano
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 14, 2006

A theatre department at a liberal arts college has a responsibility to present thought provoking, academically relevant plays. Too often, the desire to produce a popular hit overrides this obligation. Thankfully, this is not the case with Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," a beautiful production by Gary Gisselman, the artistic director of St. Olaf Theatre.

Gisselman said that he tries to find plays that work across disciplines. "Arcadia" interweaves mathematics, physics, English romanticism, philosophy and even gardening with clarity and intelligence. At the heart of the play lies the notion that history is ultimately unknowable.

The play's narrative moves back and forth in time, from 1809 to the present, though all the action occurs in a single room of a mansion at Sidley Park in rural England.

The play keeps secrets well, and at times is as thrilling as a great murder mystery. As a pair of academic researchers try to reconstruct the events that happened at the estate in 1809, the audience sees what really happened simultaneously.

The cast handles the complexity of Stoppard's writing with maturity and zeal. Heady intellectual material such as Fermat's last theorem and the second law of thermodynamics are explained clearly. The play is at its best when discussing these difficult academic topics because they are blended so beautifully with the characters' personal journeys.

There are many good performances on both sides of the time gap. Franny Gustafson '07 is excellent as Lady Croom, the 1809 version of a cold yuppie parent. Senior Christian Cooper's hilarious Ezra Chater oozes ego even in the way he presents junior Jake Mahler's Septimus Hodge with an inscribed copy of his "great" poem. Jonathan Ziese '06 also gives an effectively youthful read on the Byron-worshipping Bernard Nightingale.

Tom Borger '06 and Megan Hughes '06 are better than I've ever seen them. Borger plays the sexually ambiguous Valentine Coverly with humor and intelligence, and Hughes, as the coldly academic Hannah Jarvis, is unrelenting in her search for the truth.

Stephanie Polt '06 is exquisite in the central role of Thomasina, who matures during the course of the play from a precocious, albeit brilliant, 13-year-old girl to a 16-year-old prodigy whose theories anticipate difficult math and science that were not realized until the computer age. In her relationship with her tutor Septimus the audience remembers that the act of education is inherently erotic.

There is no set, except for an easel and a long table which the past and the present share. All other sense of place is conveyed beautifully by Guthrie light designer Ray Steveson's work. The cyclorama is softly patterned with clouds, and there is a great sophistication in the subtlety with which the light cues meld into each other. It took a second viewing to consciously notice the delicacy of the design, shifting from sepia candlelit tones in 1809 to the colder feeling of electrical light in 2006.

If this reviewer has any qualms, they are that in putting the intellectual ideas at the forefront of the production the plot was sometimes rushed and words were sometimes lost. By and large, however, the language was handled with extreme care and because of this, "Arcadia" is an intensely rewarding experience.

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