Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia" at the IU Theatre is a delightful comic concoction. It’s a fiction surrounded by lots of intriguing facts. There are serious complexities of nineteenth century English intellectual life mixed with the silliness of its social life, and -well–the silliness of some twentieth century scholarship’s endeavors to unravel those complexities mixed with some seriousness as well.
Jonathan Michaelsen directs a tidily staged and nicely paced production of a play that uses the same set for scenes from the first part of the nineteenth century and the last decade of the twentieth. In the 19th the Coverley Family is in full possession of the estate and its garden while in the 20th, the last members of the family are presiding over the remains while one scholar studies the history of garden and another the possible literary connections of a duel that might have taken place in that garden.
The play opens in 1808 with the family tutor Septimus Hodge played with relaxed grace by Eric van Tielen instructing their daughter Thomasina Coverly, an innocently enthusiastic Melanie Derleth. Their subjects scattered over a long table are mathematics, Latin and drawing. Things quickly switch and the table is now the locus of the study materials of garden historian Hannah Jarvis, a canny and defensive Renee Racan, mathematician Valentine Coverley, the repressed David Sheehan and then literary historian on-the-make Bernard Nightengale, an over the top Jeff Grafton.
No sooner did we get comfortable with the fencing back and forth between the rival historians in the present of "Arcadia" than we were back in 1810 and tutor Septimus was being accused of a scurrilous review and challenged to a duel by aspiring poet Ezra Chater, a delightfully enraged foppish Nick Arapoglou.
I’ve mentioned some principal players who appear in the play, but one of the key figures, Lord Byron. Never appears. His fictional visit to the fictional estate in the precipitates all sorts of household chaos in the 19th century and is the reason for the literary sleuth Nightengale’s visit.
One of the delights of Tom Stoppard’s play is that the audience knows more than the egotistical investigator, but that there are still surprises awaiting in the final scenes. Speaking of the scene, designer Gordon Strain has come up with a novel and lovely approach to the problem of a play that takes place in a single room, but continually refers to a garden. He does present vistas beyond in the depths, but he’s brought the garden into the room by decorating the walls with its scenes.
"Arcadia" is an incredibly funny and talky play. Sly jokes, verbal put downs and wild flights of intellectual fancy abound. It’s replete with passing references to obscure figures from science, literature and the arts. They are delightful when understood but still add to the general texture, the play’s patina when they aren’t. There are some real virtuoso speech performances in nicely balanced performances. Frankly, I was a little surprised that the audience in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre didn’t break into applause for some of the individual flights, especially in the first act. The humor can be as elevated as Septimus Hodges jokes about Latin translation and as low as Lady Croom’s query about another woman’s underwear.
Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia" plays each evening this week at the IU Theatre’s new curtain time of seven-thirty.
You can listen to an interview with scenic designer Gordon Strain and actor Eric van Tielen on our Arts Interviews page .