Two Reviewers, One Play: ARCADIA

The Cast of ARCADIA. Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

The Cast of ARCADIA. Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

Presented by Central Square Theater & and the Nora Theatre Company
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner

Current-May 15, 2016
Central Square Theater
Central Square, Cambridge, MA
Central Square/Nora Theatre on Facebook

Noe and I attended this performance together. We were impacted differently so we both wrote reviews. One follows after the other below. 

#1 “Occasional passion that cools to room temperature”
Review by Noelani Kamelamela

Run times are suggestions that should factor into audience decisions.  If you come to this show, please keep in mind that it’s three hours long.  In theatre, as in life, time has a way of extending from the early 19th century to the present day.  Several members of the audience had to exit audience left during the most exciting parts of the play. Don’t schedule anything immediately after Arcadia, it’s not a good idea, you won’t enjoy yourself and no one in the audience will enjoy that either.  This rant is over.  I hope to never have to write this again.

Set in two time periods in the selfsame English country house, present day scholars wonder about the particular life details of the occupants in the early 19th century.  Main characters in this play cogitate in the library to either make predictions about the future or draw conclusions about the past.  In the first two thirds of the play, there are clear distinctions made to the time periods with appropriate lighting and music choices and eventually the two blend together.  The set suggests the windows and doors of a medium sized country house with a thrust stage that houses most of the action.  The lack of walls allows for the audience to see exits and entrances long before they ever happen.

Celeste Oliva as Hannah is an engaging and solid centerpiece.  Hannah’s modern adherence to logic is a contrast to the intuition of Kira Patterson’s Thomasina, a young girl who lived in the house back in the 1800s.  These two women really anchor the entire piece, even though they aren’t the actors who have the most action:  their emotional contributions seem quiet, but move the piece forward in believable ways. Matthew Zahnzinger portrays a man after my own science-loving heart as the impassioned and analytical Valentine Coverly.

The last hour has both time periods co-mingle instead of merely sharing the same set.  I dislike the lack of co-mingling in the first two thirds, but for someone who may not have read the play before, the entire play may be even more confusing if the two time periods shared the same scenes as they do in the last third.  Audience members who love this play will definitely enjoy this production and audience members who know nothing about this play will have a decent shot at enjoying it.  

There is a lot of talk within the play about the application of the scientific method to literature, history and weather prediction. Arcadia is not hard science, and definitely attempts to cover more academic, historical and cultural ground than it can prepare an average audience for in the time available.  

The Nora Theatre Company extended its run of Arcadia into the second month of May.  Coming up next for the company in June is a production of Bedlam’s Twelfth Night playing in repertory with Bedlam’s What You Will, modern Shakespearean variations.

#2 “The Most Tom Stoppard that Tom Stoppard has Ever Tom Stopparded”
Review by Kitty Drexel

Not so long ago I made a promise to myself to read my plays that would stretch my expectations of what theatre should be. I started with some surrealist new plays and slowly made my way to Stoppard. I had read somewhere on the ever trusty internet that Arcadia is considered one of his best, most favored plays. I borrowed a copy from the Minuteman Library system and had at it. I was conked out asleep in 3 minutes. I tried again in a bustling coffee shop; asleep in 7. It was then that I decided to give Stoppard a rest and move on thinking that perhaps I needed to see it onstage to be moved by it. After having seen the Nora Theatre’s well-constructed production, I’m beginning to think that maybe Stoppard isn’t my jam, as it were.

Arcadia is a dry comedy of manners that takes itself very seriously. In it, Stoppard theorizes that no matter how much we research and excavate, history will never truly reveal its mysteries in full. He does this by pairing the past with the present in scenes that reveal as they mystify. It’s a three movement play performed in only two acts.

Ross MacDonald, Celeste Oliva, and Will Madden are working very hard to imbue their characters with life and purpose. Their presentations are reserved and so weighed down by stress and Stoppard’s language that it’s difficult to follow their trajectories. The effervescence and enthusiasm of Matthew Zahnzinger and Kira Patterson are such a contrast that the audience latchs onto them like starving babes at a teet. They aren’t delivering better performances than their co-actors. They are communicating more joy.

Meanwhile, the turtle is adorable and injects some desperately needed sentiment into the show. The adult actors are working their butts off and on the table there’s the sweet beastie strutting around his (her?) cage completely ignoring the action around him. There’s something so poetic in watching this creature of nature go about his business, completely ignoring the humans attempting to piece together time and space. No matter how humans bloviate, Nature is going to continue her cycles. It’s quite endearing.

There are many draws to the Central Square production. The extended run is a testament to its quality but it isn’t what one might call an insight into the human experience. We see exquisite minds working quickly and compellingly but we don’t come to care for these characters as people. Stoppard doesn’t give us much reason to do so. He doesn’t give the actors much opportunity to do so either. What’s more, he meanders around his point providing far too much supporting evidence into his dramatic thesis to verbally prove his point. His characters tell when they should show. The focus is almost entirely on the science. They are meat puppets employed for the purpose of Stoppard’s thorough discussion. It’s brilliant if you’re into that sort of thing.

A note about turtle food: iceberg lettuce is water and cellulose. It has none of the nutrients a turtle needs. Try spinach or watermelon. Turtles love watermelon.  

Photograph: A.R. Sinclair Photography, photo chosen for the turtle.

Photograph: A.R. Sinclair Photography, Turtle and cast

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