At the start of an era that’s being billed—ruefully by some, blithely by far too many—as post-truth, in which insidious terms like alternative facts and fake news haven’t just entered our vocabulary but hijacked the course of conversation, is there really a better time to be staging Arcadia? Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play undoubtedly contains multitudes, but if it can be pared down to a single nub, it’s about the quest for truth, or perhaps truths, whether grand or esoteric — or put another way, to borrow a line from one of its characters, the quest for that which hasn’t been proven false. Yet.
Arcadia, with all the Edenic qualities that title evokes, is therefore a paean to insatiable curiosity but not necessarily to human endeavor in its service. The play’s Bernard Nightingale, for example, allows himself to be seduced by the ambiguity left by that important temporal qualifier—yet—to arrive at a flawed and self-serving hypothesis, and he then exploits the public’s unquestioning deference to his position as a university don as a platform to advance that hypothesis. He’s slimy, condescending, grasping, conceited and arrogant, none of which helps his likability in the least, though his motivations for positing the (mistaken) assertion that Lord Byron was involved in an exciting, hitherto overlooked duel some two centuries earlier aren’t vastly different from those of your garden variety climate-change denier. He so dearly wants his speculation to be convenient and simple and true that any outliers or uncertainties, rather than shaking his confidence, only have the effect of making him more resolute. Was confirmation bias already in common usage when Stoppard was writing, or is that another term we’ve since recruited to help make sense of the post-truth age?
The new production of Arcadia at Stage Left easily ranks among the theater’s best work so far. Stage Left has developed a well-deserved reputation for tackling idea-packed plays — not always flawlessly, but always in keeping with the iterative, refining spirit of scientific as well as artistic progress. And here, thanks in part to co-directors Kathleen Jeffs and Jamie Flanery, they’ve struck the right balance of play, cast and set design for a show that is impressively strong on all counts.
That’s easier said than done. Stoppard’s dialogue might have the occasional jarring “fuck” or “dickhead” for levity’s sake, but there’s less Neil LaBute than Neil deGrasse Tyson about it, which can present obvious challenges to the actors who then have to speak with naturalism and conviction about Newtonian physics, Romantic landscape architecture and the study of grouse populations. Brooklyn Robinson, who plays the precocious Thomasina in Arcadia’s alternating historical scenes, is outstanding in this regard, and she has an equally outstanding mentor and sparring partner in Chris Jensen, who plays her tutor Septimus. Stoppard clearly wrote with a soft spot for this pair, and Robinson and Jensen do justice to the feisty period wit in their characters’ lines, the heft and boldness of their ideas, and the subtlety of their interpersonal dynamic. The solidity of this Arcadia rests largely with them but not them alone. Tami Rotchford’s Hannah Jarvis, an author whom Nightingale (played by Dave Rideout) sneeringly regards as a mere dilettante, helps to buttress the contemporary scenes with a wonderfully nuanced portrayal that conveys her character’s habitual self-doubt without making her a pushover. By contrast, Rideout is a bit too heavy-handed in the scene where, bursting with self-confidence, he reads from his forthcoming lecture, and his English accent comes and goes like an Arcadian wind; but he brings the requisite authority to the role, and his pivotal polemic (“Quarks, quasars — big bangs, black holes — who gives a shit?”) softens beautifully as he quotes Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty.’
Bryan Durbin’s set is practical as well as attractive, with trompe l’oeil wainscoting and a watercolor-style garden at the back that seems to be a faint nod to Turner’s The Vale of Ashburnham. His lighting is inconspicuously good, too, especially if you count the starry dots of light that are quietly integrated into the rear of the set. Though not explicitly paired with cloudless climes, they’re a fitting backdrop as the lights dim on the two waltzing couples, continuing humanity’s endless dance out of ignorance and toward oblivion.
Arcadia runs until May 7, 2017 at Stage Left Theater. Tickets are $10.
1. On second thought, maybe that perception is skewed by having seen it on the very day when people marched by the thousands to defend the pursuit of and, no less important, the respect for information substantiated by hard-won evidence. ↩
2. Given that the play delights in teasing out connections of significance, I have to ask: Is there any merit to the observation that Poussin, who painted Et in Arcadia ego, also painted A Dance to the Music of Time, which is evoked by the waltzing quartet in Arcadia‘s final scene? Somewhere, I suspect, a university don has published an academic paper on it. ↩