Phindie writer Michael Fisher embarks on a multi-part critical experiment, seeing the Lantern Theater Company’s production of ARCADIA several times over its run. With each viewing, he will share his thoughts not just on the specific performance, but on new revelations it provides with repeat viewing and the evolution of a production over the course of its run. Read his introduction to this experiment here.
“The Experiment”: Part I
In many ways, ARCADIA marks itself as a play that can’t be fully gotten in a single viewing, which makes it ideal for our purposes. It’s dense, verbose, borderline pedantic in terms of its literary, scientific, mathematical and botanical allusions. It has a weight that can’t be measured by spending a few hours with it in a theater.
To that effect, Kathryn MacMillan’s production, in its effortless grasp of the material, achieves both the obvious and the obscure aims of Tom Stoppard’s play. The story is pursued with urgency, while the textual obscurities seem so thoroughly understood by the actors that we more or less take their word for it whenever a reference goes over our heads. One of the things I hate about writing reviews—especially positive reviews—is that after a while it all seems like a game of bobbing for adjectives. I could call the production “soaring,” I could pick out actors to designate as giving “standout” or “tour de force” performances, I could even label the play with my least favorite adjective of all, one that I would have banished from this and every other language: “thought-provoking.” (This has to be the worst way to describe anything in the history of everything, and I say that knowing full well that, in moments of laziness or poverty of imagination, I have failed to resist using it. It commits the classic sin of burying the lede. What in heaven’s name was the thought that was provoked? Why not talk about that?) Luckily, in this case, I feel no such compulsion to search for inaccurate platitudes, because more than any other word I can think of, Lantern’s production feels correct.
We’ve had conversations here at Phindie debating whether or not the critic should read the play before going to review it. I’ve had ARCADIA on my bookshelf for over a year (okay, it’s my girlfriend Angela’s copy, but we live together so whatever) but prior to my first viewing of Lantern’s production, I made a point not to read it. The first viewing, in my mind, was to be the purest viewing, to be accompanied by nothing more than my desire to be entertained. So how do I know it was done correctly? For one thing, the play is staged with confidence, with trust in the material to guide the action, no matter how labyrinthine the path may be. The actors are comfortable with their language, elaborate sophisms and all. The staging (as is the case with most Lantern productions, given the demands of its architecture) is in a thrust style, placing the actors in close proximity to the audience and forcing them to navigate the space with a precision that somehow manages to never look forced. This is one of the reasons the production could benefit from multiple viewings. I saw it from the downstage seating area, under the Lantern’s low-hanging balcony, which places some restrictions on how much the folks in the backmost rows can see of the set (the action onstage was clear the whole time). Nonetheless, it speaks to the care taken with the blocking that nary a word was lost nor a revelation unseen from where we sat on Sunday. The sparse set described by Stoppard (okay, I took a look at the script this morning) is tilted ever so slightly so that the central piece of furniture (a long table) sits at an angle that seems precisely calculated to please all sides of the audience. Of course, that will remain to be seen in subsequent performances, but my initial impression was that the staging made the absolute best of a difficult scenario.
These are but simple observations, obviously, but that’s because we’re not quite ready for our main course yet. As much as I enjoyed Lantern’s ARCADIA, I can’t deny how necessary a second viewing is toward a more rounded understanding of both the production and the text. In the program, MacMillan calls the play “rich and challenging,” and I daresay it’s an understatement on both fronts. We’ve got a literary detective story spanning nearly two hundred years, with sex and science and mathematics and philosophy and morals and madness and love strung around it like Christmas lights. The dramaturgical depth alone is dizzying.
I’ll dive deeper into Lantern’s production after my second viewing this weekend, but a word should be said about ARCADIA’s brief allusions to arts criticism, so appropriate are they to the business at hand. One of our main characters (Septimus Hodge, played by Maxwell Eddy) is a critic of poetry, and another (Bernard Nightingale, played by Joe Guzman) is a critic and academic attempting to prove that Lord Byron committed a murder in England in the early 1800s, thus prompting the otherwise unexplained exile from the island in which the poet spent the remainder of his life. Each of these storylines examines the critic’s desire to rewrite reality to fit his own perception, his own desires. Much of the play is about how the critic’s reality is shattered when he sees the object of his criticism in a different context. Septimus sleeps with the wife of a man whose book he is gearing up to pan in the press, forcing him to flatter the cuckold when confronted. Bernard meets a woman whose book he panned years earlier and finds himself in desperate need of her help with his Byron project. Septimus is later schooled in the laws of the universe by a sixteen-year-old girl; Bernard develops a polar sort of attraction to the former subject of his righteous journalistic ire.
If only Septimus had known that the limitations of his sexual desire extended far beyond those of his intellect. If only Bernard had known that the book is not always the perfect portrait of the author.
This is why it makes sense to me to examine ARCADIA (or any production, for that matter) from several different literal and figurative angles. There’s so much that can’t be seen in a brief glance through our critic’s lenses. [Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Church, 10th and Ludlow streets] September 25-November 9, 2014; lanterntheater.org.
- The introduction to Michael Fisher’s critical experiment
- Part 2 and Part 3 of this multi-part review experiment
- Christopher Munden’s review of the opening night performance of ARCADIA.
- Phindie writer Kathryn Osenlund’s review for CurtainUp.