Local Arts Reviews

Arcadia: Dueling Intellects

Hyde Park Theatre,

through November 11

Running Time: 2 hrs, 45 min

The genius of playwright Tom Stoppard is his ability to juggle several major themes (and twice as many subplots) in plays that outwardly seem like other "straight" plays, but are actually intricately dense, topical super-plays. While any one theme might be enough for an ordinary writer, Stoppard manages, perhaps better than any other living playwright (and most dead ones), to mold brilliant, multilayered, idea-full dramas that work on many levels simultaneously and seem to encompass everything the universe has to offer. After having sat through a Stoppard play, you get the feeling that a return visit is required to better appreciate all his linguistic, historical, scientific, sexual, comedic, and theatrical flourishes in their many aspects. And the better the company performing the work, the greater is that desire for multiple visits to trove the pleasurable depths of this playwright's riches. The ensemble in this Austin Playhouse production of Arcadia is certainly one of the best to be seen on an Austin stage, and its work may, indeed, warrant repeat visits to fully enjoy its efforts.

Thomasina Coverly and Septimus Hodge are pupil and tutor at a Derbyshire country estate in 1809. She is the daughter of the lord and lady of the manor and a budding genius; he attempts to steer her education away from the ongoing sexual shenanigans on the property, most of which he's initiated. The play jumps forward to the present day, where in the same manor house, writer-rivals Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are engaged in a vitriolic, most personal literary and historical feud over the evidence of both a shift in the property's landscaping and a long-ago duel, supposedly fought there by the poet Lord Byron. Of course, what they see as "evidence" of the past romance-induced duel, the audience sees acted out by the period characters. The fun comes in watching the contemporary characters trying to sort out the actions of the period characters, while both sorts go about their eccentric ways. This description barely scratches the play's surface, but from this evolves an amazing play.

Lara Toner and Gray Haddock play Thomasina and Septimus, and when they are engaged in their tutorial skirmishes, the production rockets to life. Toner is light and bright-eyed, and makes the genius of Thomasina penetrable to the simple audience member. Her voice lets her down at the play's end -- breathy and unconvincing for a character that has grown into a beautiful woman -- but the simple and lovely illumination of her feelings for her tutor in a quick kiss and a slow-waltz charm. Haddock has been missed on the local theatre scene, and it's great to see him onstage again. Gifted with a fine voice and an understated panache, Haddock plays the tutor with a perfect mix of detached irony and covert sexuality. While a little rusty with his diction, he, like Toner, is adept at Stoppard's light-speed dialogue. David Stahl and Andrea Osborn, as the competitive Hannah and Bernard, manage to ratchet up the play's intensity in their verbal duels. Stahl is combustible, proud, pathetic, a sexual opportunist -- everything one could wish for in a man hungry for literary fame. Osborn matches Stahl for forcefulness and yet finds places for Hannah's vulnerability to seep out. The sparring between the two sometimes hits too strident a note, but over the course of the play, both deftly navigate their characters' wiles and contradictions. Scott Daigle plays the contemporary heir to the manor, Valentine Coverly, searching for a mathematical solution and discovering it via Thomasina's 200-year-old homework. Daigle excels with Valentine's heartfelt desire for understanding, and frustration with, the complexities of his math. And David Jones is highly amusing as the dull-witted, uppity military stiff, Captain Brice.

So huge a play needs a huge environment, and although director and set designer Don Toner has done his best to keep the space open, Hyde Park is not the right venue for this show. Toner had his sights set on another site, and it is a pity he had to settle. He keeps movement to a minimum, which markedly helps so wordy a play, but the cramped space offers little variation to his stage picture. The set is bland, as are Sylvia Tate's monochromatic costumes, rich though they evidently are. And, ultimately, we get little connection to the individual characters beyond the basic plot: We should care that Thomasina will die prematurely, that Bernard and Hannah are fighting for respect as well as for their careers, that Valentine finds, and understands, his answer, that Septimus cares deeply yet remains a gentleman. As the play approaches its conclusion, some of the actors lose energy and a monochromatic filter shades their characters, as if Stoppard has bested all with his incessant brilliance.

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Arcadia, Tom Stoppard, Austin Playhouse, Lara Toner, Gray G. Haddock, David Stahl, Andrea Osborn, Scott Daigle, David Jones, Don Toner, Sylvia Tate

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