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Let's do the Time Warp again.
What do you say?
Let's travel back to the days of those geniuses Newton and Byron. Those days where "carnal embrace" meant wrapping your hands around a piece of meat. After all, aren't Newton and Byron geniuses? Doesn't "carnal embrace" mean wrapping your hand around a piece of meat?
The characters in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, in production at the UNC School of the Arts, are all on the brink of discovering the secrets of the universe – but one thing holds them back: their desire for human connection or, as the kids call it, "love."
Stoppard's play, notoriously among some of the most challenging theatre works of the past few decades, has been cited as one of the greatest plays of the last 50 years by critics. To explain its intricate plot would measure the same difficulty as trying to explain string theory over coffee at brunch.
Stoppard sets the play in a country estate, the Arcadian-like Sidley Park, where, in one decade, Septimus Hodge, a poet and contemporary of Lord Byron, is accused of adultery with the wife of Mr. Chater, another poet. All the while, Septimus' pupil Thomasina is on the brink of existential and sexual discovery, pondering questions such as the circulation of heat and "carnal embrace." All of these characters seem on the brink of blooming like the gardens that are planted on the estate by Mr. Noakes, the gardener.
In alternating scenes set in present-day Sidley Park, two literary-opponents-turned-collaborators try to uncover the mysteries surrounding Sidley Park, both equally false and true in their interpretations of what happened. The questions become: can historians really know what happened? Or do we eventually become creatures of our own perspectives? Are math and science the only ways to discern history?
The play opens many doors, literally and metaphorically, that serve as the audience's way into attempting to answer these questions. Theatre, like many of the arts, is used to simplify explanations of life's biggest questions, in the process, posing more difficult ones that linger long after the lights go down. Stoppard does not let us off easily.
In Arcadia, the language evokes a Merchant-Ivory film merged with A Fish Called Wanda. Contemporary and classical language blend seamlessly; Stoppard uses this as a way of drawing us into his exhaustively researched theories. This is not saying it is uninteresting – absolutely not. It's what makes this play a masterpiece.
Director Carl Forsman elevates the production from lugubrious intellectual fare to a fun, enlightening night of theatre. Forsman, whose production of Benefactors at the Keen Company remains one of my favorite theatre-going experiences, is a force to be reckoned with in this production. He never dumbs down Stoppard's text, as sometimes is done to "benefit the audience" in Shakespeare or Goethe; instead, he challenges us to think in different ways and follow the craziness that is these characters' lives. All of the characters in the contemporary world of the play are constantly discovering new realizations about the history of the estate, and Forsman paces the play so we may put the pieces together along with them, in real time. In the 19th century scenes, we put together the pieces but not of the mystery of the affair. No, we're watching the mystery unfold, and it is the mysteries of the human heart we piece together.
I cannot think of a better group of actors than this UNCSA cast to tackle such a challenging, stimulating play. The characters in the 19th century play their parts with delicate warmth and hilarity, especially Dylan Arnold and Emma Geer as Septimus and Thomasina. Arnold's performance is reminiscent of his bravura role in another Forsman-directed show: last year's Midsummer Night's Dream, given with the NC Symphony, where Arnold beautifully blended period mannerisms with contemporary flair to create something extraordinary. Here, he does just that again – but he keeps getting better. Emma Geer plays Thomasina like a girl on the verge of womanhood with ever so subtle sexual energy; she reminded me of Laura Benanti's tour-de-force performance in Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room, The Vibrator Play, where she was on the brink of becoming a woman but unsure how to do it.
The other players in the 19th century world contribute fine performances. Monica Bell, last seen in The Homecoming, is a respectable Lady Croom, though the coldness of the character doesn't give the audience much sympathy for her come Act II; perhaps this is a fault of the text. Luis Quintero and Tony Jenkins put in fun supporting roles as the gardener Mr. Noakes and the servant Jellaby, both well-written secondary characters reminiscent of the manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest, who can easily steal the showm given the right actor. Alex Gagne's Mr. Chater is a wild, owl-eyed character, prone to raging outbursts and bull-like charging when provoked. Ian Fermy's Captain Brice is a notable standout.
In contemporary times, Katie Ailion delivers one of the most surprising performances of the group. At first, I didn't care much for her character, given that Ailion wasn't seeming to play her with much fervor or history (her back story, we discern, is that she was an orphan turned brilliant academic), but as the play went on, Ailion gave a truly winning portrayal of the complicated woman. Isaac Britt's Bernard Nightingale is a comedic homerun, using his tall, lanky body to twist and turn about as he excitedly reports on his new findings. Chloe Coverly is a sexy Emma and Johnathan Downey turns in an informed performance as Valentine. Samuel Farnsworth, in an almost dialog-less role, displays early stages of being a great actor, able to communicate a multitude of things by just looking at a person.
I hesitate to tell you to cancel your weekly wine-and-cheese plans to catch a play, but for this outstanding production, you can't miss it. If you are starved for stimulating, unapologetic theatre, come hungry to this production of Arcadia, for it truly is a three-course meal for the mind and heart.
Arcadia runs Oct. 15-18. See the sidebar for details.