AisleSay Boston


by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jacques Cartier
At the Huntington Theatre Company
Huntington Avenue, Boston Through October 6th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

There is a cornucopia of riches on stage at the Huntington Theatre: a large cast of well-trained actors with elegant accents and crisp diction; a breathtakingly beautiful set, by Karl Eigsti, exquisitely lighted by Roger Meeker; graceful costumes by Lindsay W. Davis; Tom Stoppard's elevated language, that serves equally well in epigrammatic wit and for the serious pursuit of important ideas. Stoppard is a Huntington favorite: his "Night and Day" was the company's initial production in 1982, and the company has done Stoppard adaptations "On the Razzle" and "Undiscovered Country" as well as "Jumpers" and "Travesties". Jacques Cartier, who directs most of the Huntington Stoppard, has in "Arcadia" a script that plays to the Huntington's institutional strengths, especially in scenic design. Eigisti supplies a glittering brass pendulum to dangle stage right like a huge Christmas bauble, promising intellectual challenge combined with aesthetic delight and nostalgic charm, which is whisked away as the stage action begins.

The pendulum never reappears, and its promise is never quite fulfilled. So much is right about the Huntington production of this magnificent play that it seems petty to ask for more. Yet although the story of Stoppard's Arcadia is structured as if it were an English country-house detective thriller, and Stoppard's dialogue has the lilt and punch of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, play has the capacity to touch the heart as well as engage the eyes and the mind. It is possible that the problem is simply a case of press night jitters, and that as the run continues the cast will feel their way into roles that they already own as a matter of intellect, appearance and temperament.

Stoppard's dazzle in "Arcadia" is a kind of juggling act. Each of the balls the author puts in the air is difficult enough to handle in itself. The playwright takes quantum mechanics and chaos theory as "metaphors for human behavior." Stoppard tosses in fractals, and the evolution of English landscaping from the geometric formality of topiary through a pruned and domesticated naturalism to the ersatz Gothic wilderness of the picturesque as an analogy for a changing human relationship to Nature. The author tops this off with a set of allusive and illusive celebrities: Byron and Newton and Fermat and Peacock, von Hemholtz and Fourier and Capability Brown. If all this sounds likely to set your head in a nauseating spin, fear not. Stoppard has laid it out beautifully, "Physics For Dummies" style, and the cast has taken great pains to make sure that all the ideas reach out to the audience. In this regard the Huntington production surpasses the London original.

The play begins in1809, in the schoolroom at palatial and Palladian Sidley Park, where thirteen year old Thomasina Coverly (Gretchen Cleevely) is querying her handsome young tutor, Septimus Hodge (Connor Trinneer) about the meaning of the term "carnal embraces" -- Thomasina has overheard the servants say her tutor was spied in such a state in the garden's gazebo with the wife of a minor poet named Ezra Chater (Stephen Temperley) .

From Septimus' witty banter it is clear that he is brilliant, and that the tutor recognizes in his pupil Thomasina a mind of rare quality as well as a well-bred adolescent's prurient curiosity. In the course of the play Thomasina will discover a theory that is so far ahead of her time that Septimus could spend a lifetime trying in vain to prove it. When her distant relative who is a modern mathematician stumbles upon it in the1990's, he says that it is impossible that Thomasina could have intuited a discovery more than a hundred years before it became part of the body of scientific thought: "You can't open a door before the house is built".

At the time Thomasina is sketching out her proof, hoping to impress her tutor with it, Septimus pays it scant attention. He's busy distracting an outraged husband. Septimus soothes the poet's savage breast with fulsome praise for his flacid verses, and Chater is flattered out of his demand for a duel to avenge his wife's insult. Septimus denies insulting the Chater honor with a quip: had he ignored the woman's invitation and left her in frustration, that would have been an insult-- but if the poet ever discovers that Septimus is the anonymous author of a devastating critique of Chater's work in the Edinburgh Review, there will be hell to pay. Septimus has scarcely a second thought for his causal bedmate Mrs. Chater, but he wishes to stay employed at Sidley Park because he is in love with the dashing Lady Croom, Thomasina's mother.

Linda Gehringer conveys Lady Croom's wit, tossing off scathing epigrams left and right, and the actress is certainly beautiful. But where is the seductive charm that enslaves men of all ages and conditions? Not that Stoppard has given the actress much help. Lady Croom's lines, while amusing, have the cruel whip-crack of Lady Bracknell's, and everything the character says reveals her utter selfishness. Lady Croom seems indifferent to her daughter's education until she realizes that Thomasina is about to turn seventeen and be eligible for the Marriage Mart. At that point it occurs to the lady that brains may prove a handicap to her daughter in the hunt for a rich and powerful husband! But if this is so, why has Lady Croom engaged a brilliant male tutor for her daughter, and allowed Thomasina to study Latin and mathematics instead of being instructed by a governess in the usual subjects for a young lady: French, deportment and watercolors?

The events at Sidley Park in 1809 leave traces that are discovered iin the 1990's, and misinterpreted by a careerist academic named Bernard Nightingale (Terrence Caza). "Duel" "adultery" and "poet" smell like Lord Byron to Nightingale, who reads into the records at Sidley Park a likely explanation for Byron's mysterious flight from England in April of 1809. Byron must have killed Chater and been forced to flee the country or face a murder charge. If Nightingale can convince literary scholars of the truth of his discovery, his reputation will gleam as brightly in the tight world that spans academic journals and BBC talk shows as Byron's did in the Romantic Era.

Nightingale's 1990's colleague-rival is Hannah Jarvis (Kandis Chappell) who has written a book about Byron's mistress Caroline Lamb -- a book Nightingale has panned. Hannah is visiting Sidley Park to research a book on its gardens, and although she warns Nightingale that he is jumping to unwarranted conclusions, she helps him by turning over the relevant materials. Hannah Jarvis is another conundrum. She, too, although she is guarded and frosty where Lady Croom was expansive and overheated, is a witty woman who is irresistible to every man she meets -- literally.

There are three males in the 1990 scenes: First , gorgeous thirtish Valentine Coverly (Willis Sparks), the Croom heir, a mathematician whose research project is graphing the Park's grouse population using the numbers from the Sidley Park gamebook kept over the generations (It is the gamebook that reveals Byron's visit, otherwise unrecorded. Byron came to see Septimus, a school friend, and set Thomasina to dreaming of romance) Second, Gus Coverly (Liam Sullivan), Valentine's pathologically shy genius of a teen age brother, who does not speak; and lastly, Nightingale. All are overcome by Hannah's middle aged charms -- Valentine even insists that they are engaged, although she denies it. Hannah is smart lady, and a nice person -- but so estranged from her own body that she has never learned to dance. Chappell is a Leading Lady type, and she goes against that type to give Hannah a tweedy authenticity. But why in the world are all these males bowled over? It must be pheromones.

Or it must be that for Stoppard sex is symbolic, bringing together determinism and indeterminacy, representing what Valentine's love-hungry sister Chloe (Annika Peterson) calls "the attraction Newton left out." The actors themselves must stir it into the mix, as Thomasina stirs the enlightening jam into the pudding that inspires her to theorize

Except for Cleevely as Thomasina and Trinneer as her tutor, who have a complex and shifting relationship and who also stay open and vulnerable to all that the other characters do and say, the people on stage at the Huntington seem to be strangers to one another, performing rather than living their lives. Caza's Nightingale is the worst offender-- even taking into consideration the circumstance that treating people as material or as audience is the character's flaw. Nightingale's audience should be on stage or in his imagination, but Caza plays entire scenes straight out to the one in the auditorium, complete with winks and nudges to cue the laughs.

Perhaps the production is taking its cue from the standard "English country house whodunit". There audience identifies with the sleuth, and is indeed better off distanced from the characters, any one of whom may turn out to be the murderer. At the denouncement we are to rejoice in the murderer's apprehension and punishment, which restores an essential order which is prior to and more important than the lives and loves of any of the people assembled on stage --- that order is what gives those lives their meaning.

The sense of order at the end of Arcadia is not like that at all. What is valuable is what is momentary, a brief dance between chaos and stasis. Humanity is an insignificant by- product of processes so vast and so alien that only the rarest intelligence is able to get so much as a glimpse of them. The cosmos throws us back on ourselves for meaning. We are best advised to find it by delight in human intelligence, in the passionate search for fact and pattern; and by delight in human relationships, in the passionate attachment of one human to another. That is the delight Stoppard offers, in abundance, in "Arcadia".