As with most writers, Tom Stoppard sets out to prove that man does not live on bread alone. We need a little more, a little metaphysics, or it’s back to cattle grazing. “Arcadia” is a testament to that claim, and you’ll struggle to find a finer production of it than at the Yale Repertory Theater.
I was baffled, seduced and enchanted enough to go twice, once on a Friday, and the result was ultimately disheartening: After the show, I knew the rest of the weekend, whatever lay in store, would be a dull, meaningless and post-coital affair.
“Arcadia,” as with many of Stoppard’s works, is about subjunctive history: the what-ifs and the might-have-beens. The play flicks between two time periods in the Coverley family’s countryside manor: 1809 and the present day. The current residents delve into the ambiguities of the manor’s predecessors, who themselves appear, whilst they muse on mathematics, literature and entropy.
Septimus (played by Thomas Pecinka DRA ‘15) shows spectacular disdain for his rival, Chater, and his capacity for condescension is astounding. The spit can be seen flying out of his mouth as he flawlessly enunciates every word with a mammoth breadth of intonation and intensity. Not only Septimus but the whole cast moves with exceptional style as they posture, sit and emote. In the 1809 setting, the stage resembles the many Gainsborough family portraits at the YCBA. However, director James Bundy doesn’t limit himself to the classical canon. As the scenes change, gentle minimalistic interludes coo to the audience, ambient musical numbers that could’ve come straight from Arcade Fire’s soundtrack to “Her.”
Max Gordon Moore DRA ‘11 turns Valentine, the sardonic and impatient mathematician, into the most lovable arsehole possible. The callousness of his lines is given an unprecedented warmth in their delivery — “of course she bloody couldn’t” is no longer rude, but somehow charming. He states (to an attentive Hannah) the beauty and wonder of both chaos theory and fractal geometry as the most miraculous phenomenon: “It’s how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm. It makes me so happy.”
Bundy opts to fill this speech with intermittent and unsuccessful attempts on Valentine’s part to kiss Hannah. The pathos and intensity of the speech are somewhat compromised, but the audience howls with laughter. Bundy is ruthlessly attentive throughout: When two characters from the different eras are reading onstage together, the books’ pages are turned in unison. Little details are spiced up: In the text, there is “Give Lightning [the tortoise] a kick on your way out.” In the play, “lightning” is replaced with “Gus,” the recalcitrant boy. Cruder joke, bigger laugh. Bernard (Stephen Barker Turner) fistbumps Chloe. The play is a little racier, and for something three hours long, these attention-seizing gestures are valuable.
The production’s energy doesn’t just come from gimmicks, but also from passion of character. When Bernard delivers a panegyric to literature and the individual talent, prompted by Valentine’s claim that “personalities” are “trivial,” “Arcadia” stops simmering and it starts to burn. Behind Turner’s razor-sharp articulation, one can feel the voice of a writer telling all the moderns who worship data and information to just fuck off: “A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There’s no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it.”
Hannah (René Augesen), the world-weary writer who is profoundly unable to love anyone, closes the math-versus-literature debate with exquisite mediation: “It’s all trivial — your grouse, my hermit, Bernard’s Byron. Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
This is Stoppard’s catechism. It’s the curiosity and the meaning we find, that is nourishing, not the object or art form to which it corresponds. Augusen, who plays Hannah, utters this speech with complete and perfect sincerity. There’s no one who won’t buy it.
“Arcadia” has the odd hitch. Some of the British accents aren’t quite there, but perhaps I’m only saying this as a Brit myself: to American ears unaccustomed to our eccentric breed of sharpened consonants and flattered vowels, they’ll go undetected. Every innovation of Bundy’s pays off, and we’re left with an original production of “Arcadia,” a rare feat indeed.
When Stoppard came to speak here last month and was asked what he looked for in performances of his plays, the reply was simply “clarity of speech.” Stoppard would be delighted with what the Yale Rep has done with “Arcadia”: Despite the breathtaking speed at which the one-liners and aphorisms come, nothing is missed or blunted. The old world moves fluidly into the new and back again; Pecinka is debonaire, winning Septimus is counterbalanced by the wild pairing of Turner and Moore. As the characters from both eras dance together, oblivious of each other, in the play’s impossibly magnificent finale, a pseudo-Santana guitar riff from a garden party slips into a Chopin waltz from the dining room. The lights fade to an indigo glimmer, and every working mechanism in the play is visually resolved: New and old are one, disorder and order are one — there is harmony.