A human equation
Rogue Theatre’s ‘beautiful and haunting’ rendition of Stoppard classic
There’s plenty of brain food to chew on in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now in production at 1078 Gallery by the Rogue Theatre: chaos theory, the life of Lord Byron and garden architecture of the late Georgian era are just a few of the topics explored. But as the play unfolds in an enlightening—and abundantly entertaining—two hours, these layers of esoterica are peeled away to reveal a very human and touching story.
Arcadia takes place in an English country home called Sidley Park in two different time periods—1809-1812 and the present day—and centers around multiple generations of the home’s occupants, the Coverly family. In the earlier period, a philandering renaissance man, Septimus Hodge (Matt Hammons), resides at Sidley Park to tutor Thomasina Coverly (Ashley Garlick), a brilliant, precocious, teenage girl who inadvertently discovers complex mathematical concepts. Hodge’s amorous ways create conflict among the gentry he serves, as does a visit from Hodge’s college chum, an unseen Lord Byron.
In the present day, academics Bernard Nightingale (Joe Hilsee) and Hannah Jarvis (Hilary Tellesen) visit the home to investigate interwoven mysteries regarding the events that occur in the earlier period. Thomasina’s descendent, Valentine Coverly (Mark Cunha-Rigby), has similar mathematical aptitudes and is unknowingly continuing the work of the long-gone girl.
Stoppard’s play is amazingly well-written, and the Rogue player’s do his work justice. Following the dialogue is something like watching Olympic gymnastics. Profound ideas are interspersed with some gloriously low-brow moments as the author effectively channels Masterpiece Theatre and Monty Python. Particularly engaging—and hilarious—is the banter between Hodges and the cuckolded Ezra Chater (Sean Green), who challenges the former to a duel that lies at the center of the ensuing mystery. Another highlight is the constant bickering between Jarvis and Nightingale. A good deal of ribaldry plays into it all, with the characters equally driven by lofty goals and more earthly pursuits.
The staging is as sparse and simple as the dialogue is thick, with props and stage decoration staying the same through both time periods. Large frames representing windows stare out onto Sidley Park’s garden, the effect of which is partly facilitated by foliage painted on the back wall, but largely left to the audience’s imagination. The players emerge from several different points, sometimes walking through the gallery-turned-theater’s makeshift seating and sometimes delivering lines from the back of the audience. The overall effect is a magnificent bit of theater magic that puts us in the ancient house among the players. You can practically smell the flowers outside.
All of the Rogue Players are fantastic; particularly charming are Hammons’ turn as Hodge and Hilsee’s portrayal of Nightingale. The young Wade Gess holds his own among the older actors, playing a (largely silent) dual role as Augustus and Gus Coverly. Tellesen’s Jarvis is a gem, and Keilana Decker is terrific as Chloe Coverly.
Perhaps most memorable is Garlick as Thomasina, who is eventually revealed as the emotional heart of the whole story. In the end, Arcadia is not so much about duels as it is a simple dance, less about the alleged deeds of long-dead great men than about a young girl’s love of life. It’s beautiful and haunting.
Arcadia may seem daunting to some theater goers, but it shouldn’t be. It’s not necessary to understand some of the complex ideas going on or know a great deal about history, though you’re likely to learn a bit in the process. These things are tertiary to the real human story, with the whole Byron affair serving as something of a MacGuffin. Viewers will likely laugh a lot, get a little misty, and even learn a thing or two. What more can you ask from a night at the theater?