Time-traveling Arcadia -- an Intellectual Exercise at Yale Rep

By Amy J. Barry

Yale Repertory Theatre’s new production of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s 1993 critically acclaimed drama that takes place in both the 19th and 21st centuries is tight as a drum, superbly acted and directed. Despite some sound issues (which can be fixed) that make it hard to decipher every word—and this is a play that requires rapt attention to avoid becoming lost in the multi-layered, complex plot—it is near perfect in its execution of the playwright’s vision.

That said, this play may or may not be your particular cup of English tea. It may not be if you like your dramas with more action than dialogue, you want to know more about the characters than their philosophical pontifications provide, and you haven’t read up on your chaos theory and second law of thermodynamics.

This is a very wordy, very clever, very cerebral play, but it doesn’t illicit a lot of emotional response as it deals in matters of the head more than the heart, even though Yale Rep oddly bills it as “ravishingly romantic.” It is more about the characters’ tremendous thirst for knowledge with some scattered sexual innuendo.

To quote my friend as we were leaving the theater: “There’s too much and too little.” We both found that there was a lot more verbal sparring than meaningful human connection.

All the action takes place in one elegant but sparsely decorated room in a country estate in Derbyshire, England with each act alternating between the present and 200 years earlier. Terrific, period-correct costumes by Grier Coleman help the audience keep track of what century they’re in.

The opening scene set in 1809 is quite humorous and lively with two central characters, Septimus Hodge (Tom Pecinka) and Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman), his 13-year-old charge, discussing the meaning of “carnal embrace."

While Septimus tries to avoid a direct answer, houseguest Ezra Chater (Jonathan Spivey) accuses Septimus of practicing “carnal embrace” with his wife in the gazebo and challenges him to a duel, which he averts. Enter landscape architect Richard Noakes (Julian Gamble), Captain Brice (Graham Rowat) and Tomasina’s imposing mother, Lady Croom (Felicity Jones). They discuss additions to the gardens while Thomasina sketches a picture of a hermit on the drawings.

Two of the strongest performances in the production, Brockman is delightful as Thomasina, the bright-beyond-her-years, curious young girl, who grows to the “coming out” age of 17 during the play, and Pecinka is splendid as Septimus, her charming and handsome tutor, who, when he isn’t doing his own academic research, is having affairs with the older women in the mansion.

The next scene takes place in the present and the plot begins to get quite elaborate. Writer/historian Hannah Jarvis (Rene Augesen) is doing research on the house and garden and the hermit pops up again in her study of hermits and the Romantic imagination.

Other characters are introduced. These include the scholarly, celebrity-worshipping Bernard Nightingale (Stephen Barker Turner), who gave Jarvis’s book a lousy review and is also researching the Coverly family’s archives in order to figure out what exactly went on at the mansion during this 200-year period that the play spans. Valentine Coverly (Max Gordon Moore) a mathematical genius, who understands algorithms more than people, also plays a key role.

The scenes continue to alternate back and forth in time -- there isn’t enough space to describe it all here -- with the last scene occurring in both 1812 and the present day. The final act is the simplest and most enchanting. Thomasina asks Septimus to teach her to dance for her soon-to-be 17th birthday party and romance hangs in the air as they waltz around the room, which is also tinged with sadness as we have been foretold of Thomasina’s tragic fate.

This is a long play running at close to three hours with one intermission. But for the most part, the fine actors, under Bundy’s keen direction, keep the pace moving with expressive body language and dialogue that’s delivered passionately; even it it’s mostly coming from the left brain.

Arcadia is at the Yale Repertory University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven, through Oct. 25. Tickets are available online at Yale Rep.org or call 203-432-1234.

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

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