A New ARCADIA For Today — Review
For fans of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s transhistorical mediation on entropy, history, time, sex, literature, and landscape, when you think of the play you are likely to conjure images of the room in which the entire play takes place: a large table littered with books and papers, french doors leading out in a picturesque garden. Bedlam’s production of Arcadia is gestural and bare, but in stripping things back, it allows us to focus on the text sans all the beauty and grace of the space.
In lieu of a grand room, John McDermont’s set contains nothing more than two small tables and chairs. The theater itself is chaotically festooned with hints of Sidley Park: some fake ivy, a painted canvas of a Capability Brown-style English landscape, a chalkboard with Fermat’s Last Theorem. These represent director Eric Tucker’s more minimalist, deconstructed approach to Arcadia. Across his many Bedlam productions, Tucker’s work can span from inspired to gimmicky, and though his Arcadia has a bit of both, the insights and originality of vision outweigh the questionable quirks.
Stoppard’s Arcadia is an undeniable masterpiece, and Tucker’s production confirms that it rightly deserves its status as one of the best plays ever written. While anyone who has ever seen it can agree that it is a demanding play intellectually, Tucker has demonstrated that the text can also be malleable, played with, that new aspects can be highlighted and brought to light, that there is always more to find as we rotate the imagine or zoom in, as Thomasina and Valentine do. This production is cogent, elucidating, and illuminating, shining new light on the text and bringing previously unnoticed and underappreciated aspects to the fore. I’ve seen Arcadia, worked on a production of it, and have taught it, and yet this staging was the time I felt I most understood the play.
That said, there were some choices that simply did not work. We begin with Septimus writing “ENGLAND” on a chalkboard–an act I found bizarre and unnecessary. However, as Thomasina utters “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” in an American accent (cue gasp of horror), the chalkboard missive made sense, though it did not explain the choice or ease my displeasure. Stoppard’s dialogue is intrinsically British: the diction, the syntax, the structure of the sentences and the cadence of comedy only works with proper British dialect; in American accents it loses its wit and bite.
Beyond the dialect, it was the table I missed most. While I can understand the decision to sideline it for a more flexible and deconstructed option, the play needs this anchor, the table is the center of the universe of which this play revolves in both periods. The lack of table led to some awkward staging and blocking challenges Tucker was unable to conquer. Playfully, for Act II the stage itself was rotated: the audience sat in chairs on what was the stage and the theater’s actual audience house seats became the playing space. In an unexpected twist, Tucker had an easier time blocking in this reversed format, and used the seats more effectively than he used the actual stage.
In theory, eliminating a great deal of the stuff from the play should have had disastrous consequences–this play is all about the props that accumulate on the table, the historical artifacts and documents that are treated so casually in one century but become vital archival discoveries almost two hundred years later. Instead of this making an already difficult play more confusing, it made it simpler, it gave the audience permission to stop attempting to trace every piece of paper, primer, gamebook, and letter, and instead just focus on the text itself, the characters, their relationships. Tucker embraced the chaos of it all in a brilliant staging of the triumphant final scene where the characters all commingle; he had the cast all sitting in the house seats and constantly tossing each other various props, actualizing the entropic theory that Thomasina proposes and Hannah rediscovers.
Tucker made the choice to set the modern scenes not in 1993 (when it was written), but in 2023. This though does not make sense within the text itself: Valentine’s entire research and computational models are antiquated in 2023 with the world of AI. The maths don’t maths, as we might say, and in a play all about history and math, this was quite the oversight.
The acting had clear highs and lows. The supporting cast of regency male actors (Alan Altschuler/Jellaby, Arash Mokhtar/Captain Brice, Randolph Curtis Rand/Ezra Chater, Jamie Smithson/Noakes) all relied on excessive and upstaging buffoonery that was equally distracting and detracting. Mike Labbadia as Valentine too frequently resorted to yelling. Lisa Birnbaum (Lady Croom) is the most successful comedian of the cast, though Lady Croom’s best speeches (“one does not aim at poetry with pistils, at poets, perhaps”) are decidedly less funny in an American accent.
Caroline Grogan (Thomasina) came across in the early scenes as annoying, excessively childlike, and not entirely intelligent. Perhaps this was to more effectively demonstrate her transformation for the final scene, where she is confident, on the edge of adulthood, and has intellectually surpassed her tutor. Likewise, the immaturity of the earlier scene may be an attempt to counterbalance the now slimy sexual tension Septimus has with his thirteen year-old pupil. Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Septimus has a sexy, cocky swagger about him, complete with hair flips and a pouty smile, but misses the mark on the pathos and throws away his best moments, notably the monologue about the burning of the library of Alexandria.
While I have always been more drawn to the regency cast, this production had me much more invested in the modern-day plot, largely because of the superior acting by Elan Zafir (Bernard) and especially Zuzanna Szadkowski (Hannah), the shining star of the cast. Tucker’s most significant contribution is this production’s newfound emphasis on Hannah asserting just how smart Thomasina was and how significant her discoveries are. This draws on the historical equivalent, Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter) who is often credited with theorizing the first algorithmic computer program in 1843. This was a welcome feminist recentering, moving away from Septimus and on to the actual genius of the play, his far ahead of her time pupil.
This production is a success precisely because it helps us think about the play in new ways, notice new elements, appreciate different moments, see something familiar anew. By stripping it back, we are able to focus on the beauty of the play itself–and what a great deal of beauty there is to behold. Et in Arcadia ego, indeed.
Arcadia is now in performance through December 10, 2023 at the West End Theatre in New York City.