Navigating the Nature of Knowledge

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// Stephanie Addenbrooke

The language of love and the language of science do not often find themselves in correspondence, but their discourse in Arcadia seems natural. The play oscillates between present-day and 18th century sets in England, within the same house. The opening scene reveals 13-year-old Thomasina, played by Eliza Hopkins ‘17, sitting at the table with her tutor, Septimus, played by Simon Schaitkin ‘17. She innocently inquires to him about the meaning of “carnal embrace” during their lesson, and the audience is quickly hit with the guiding theme of Arcadia: that the pursuit of knowledge is, ultimately, a unifying force among us all. The interaction featured notes that would prevail throughout the rest of the show—wit, depth and complexity.

Director Zachary Elkind ’17 and producer by Alison Mosier-Mills ’17 center Arcadia at a home in Sidley Park, England. The present-day setting focuses on a group of people intent on uncovering the mysteries of the home from the 18th century. These two timelines are so intertwined that the set does not change between scenes. The characters in each era differ, and never interact directly. Marianna Gailus ‘17 plays Hannah, a writer in the present day who is researching “The Hermit of Sidley Park,” who formerly lived around the home. Hannah is joined by Bernard Nightingale, played by Taylor Rogers ‘17, who has come to the home to research a theory about a murder among the home’s former inhabitants.

As the two collaborate in research, they slowly begin to unravel details about the characters from the earlier time. They are also joined by Hannah’s fiancé and academic Valentine Coverly, played by Gian-Paul Bergeron ‘17, his sister Chloe, played by Eleanor Slota ‘17, and the puzzling Gus played by Greg Suralik ‘17, who remains silent for the play’s entirety.

The set consists of doors in the middle and on both sides of the stage, two windows and a table set with chairs in the center of the stage. The props used by both sets of characters do not change or move off of the set. These include books, and a tortoise named “Lightning” by the present-day characters. The constancy in both set and props suggests a greater commonality than mere place—both sets of characters have a universal and insatiable appetite for knowledge. This aspect joins with the phenomenon of human emotion, as in the scene where Chloe theorizes that the world would be able to run according to predictable laws, if not for the unexpectedness of romantic relationships.

As classically “unexpected” as can be, student Thomasina and teacher Septimus ultimately admit their attraction and share a kiss in the final scene of the play. Hopkins played Thomasina brilliantly, as a genius adolescent whose age and inexperience render her a dynamic and likable character. Rogers’ Bernard was also well received by the audience, as his self-important humor effectively broke up the sometimes overwhelmingly detail-rich plot.

The simplicity of the set and minimal props allows the audience to concentrate entirely on the characters, which emphasizes the play’s focus on the human element. Costume is markedly different among the two sets of characters to reflect the times, providing an interesting juxtaposition to the innate similarity in the storylines. The characters within the 1800s setting donned authentic-looking dresses and menswear, the modest dresses of female characters being especially striking.

Elegance of the costumes and set aside, Arcadia boasts a theme that will resonate with audiences long after they leave. The show balances love and humor effortlessly with thought-provoking ideas about the nature of science and life as we know it. And the actors succeed further in weaving humor into this complex and insightful plotline: their interactions with the tortoise, while not the focus of the play, are an amusing respite from the intense questions on the nature of knowledge. Ultimately, for a unique performance that focuses on plot instead of frills, Arcadia is a must-see.

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