Christine Albright and Adam Devine in ICTC's, Arcadia

Christine Albright and Adam Devine in ICTC's, Arcadia

AH, ENTROPY

"Central to our world and, for the last century or so, to our understanding of it. But hardly a likely subject for a play; but then Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is hardly a likely play. Written just eleven years ago, it feels somehow pertinent—downright timely, in fact—as our world seems to move further from thinking with each passing day. I saw Arcadia in its American debut at Lincoln Center and didn't expect that I would ever see it again—it's a hard play, on the audience and on the company seeking to produce it. But it's so challenging, so full; so ecstatically awe-inspiring as it tries to embrace and encompass, well, everything. It would seem to defy doing on the off-off-Broadway scale, which is why it's so exciting and impressive that Invisible City Theatre Company has not only attempted Arcadia but really done it! Their revival is spectacularly good—an extraordinary account of an extraordinary play! Alright, I will slow down a bit; try to arrange this enthusiastic prattle into something coherent. Arcadia takes place in Sidley Park, an English country house, in 1809 and the present. The historical story is about a 13-year-old genius named Thomasina Coverly and her adventures learning about mathematics, carnal embrace, and a host of other seemingly unrelated subjects from her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Septimus is no match for his brilliant young pupil, whose ideas about the natural order contradict Newton's; they will ultimately literally devastate him. But he's plenty clever enough to evade the more trivial challenges issued by Ezra Chater, a would-be poet who is visiting the Coverly estate and whose wife is carrying on not only with Hodge but also with Hodge's school chum Lord Byron (also visiting at the moment) and Thomasina's uncle, Captain Brice. The tutor is also dallying with Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom; she, meanwhile, is in a bit of an uproar not only because of the shenanigans of "the Chater" but because her husband has hired a landscape architect called Richard Noakes to refashion the estate's gardens from their current Arcadian ideal state ("nature as God intended") to a wilder, untamed Gothic style ("a garden for The Castle of Otranto"). The contemporary plot, spinning out in the same room in front of the morphing garden, revolves around two of Lady Croom's descendents, Valentine Coverly and his younger sister Chloe. Valentine, shy and brilliant, is a perpetual student; he's using his family's meticulous game records to try to prove an esoteric theory about the patterns of behavior of populations over time. He's being visited at the moment—and is quite enamored of—Hannah Jarvis, an academic who has been hired by Val and Chloe's mother to research the history of the estate's gardens. Hannah's professional interest is the "Hermit of Sidley Park," a mysterious figure who she believes symbolizes the metaphorical entropy of the early 19th century. Also on hand is Bernard Nightingale, a rival academic who has concocted a theory that Lord Byron killed the obscure poet Ezra Chater in a duel; he's convinced that this discovery will make him famous. In scenes that alternate between the two periods, the 19th century Coverlys and their visitors and their modern-day counterparts pursue one another's hearts, minds, bodies, and souls; and those so inclined also look for patterns in the maze of trivia, noise, nature, emotion, ego, and passion that constitutes our existence. Stoppard dazzles us with conundrums here; he arranges and rearranges to show us how foolishly essential are our pastimes and pursuits. The ideas and the language astonish. It is, admittedly, dense and often difficult—few things really worth their salt are otherwise. Arcadia is rigorous theatre; but it's also thrillingly passionate, vital, visceral theatre. As we piece together the mysteries confronting and eluding Thomasina and Hannah, in particular, there's a kind of catharsis to be experienced. Director David Epstein, against all manner of odds, has placed it all clearly and comfortably before us, in a staging that's loving, thoughtful, and wise..Epstein gets this play, and he's making it accessible to audiences by virtue of the clarity and sharpness of his vision. So go: I don't know of a more engrossing or engaging evening of theatre in town."

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REASON AND ROMANCE

"When I closed the final page of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia eight years ago, time slowed. My head spun with more ideas than I could handle. Heartache crawled up the back of my throat. For the first time, I was able to see that what is in our heads can also be in our hearts, and the more relentless we are as thinkers, the more relentlessly we can love. Arcadia takes place in both the early 1800s and 2004. Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are a modern-day pair of scholars independently visiting the estate of a landed aristocratic British family. Hannah seeks to unveil the identity of the Hermit of Sidley Park, while Bernard attempts to peg a murder he believes to have happened at the estate on none other than Lord Byron. Hannah and Bernard's scenes alternate with those involving a youthful tutor (Septimus Hodge) and his charge (Thomasina Coverly) from the time period Bernard and Hannah are studying. The enormity of Arcadia is staggering. Stoppard takes on literature, science, mathematics, and philosophy; he questions predestination and the nature of God; he dramatically pits intellectual rivals against each other and effortlessly stirs up an engrossing narrative of graceful simplicity. Every scene contains a core dramatic arc that shouldn't be hard to play correctly. Stoppard's dialogue is ferociously intellectual but full of nuances, wit, and beauty. He uses an enormous aristocratic estate as his setting and allows the play's action to bandy between two centuries. In short, he outdoes himself. Against such magnitude, Invisible City Theatre Company's (ICTC) production is startlingly intimate. The ensemble is working in a very tiny space with crisp design elements. Rather than admiring the morning room of Sidley Park from afar, the audience is in it. In this space, with these people, it is impossible to avoid succumbing to the quickly paced frenzy of ideas, impossible not to feel as though we are part of the fabric of that world. Kudos to ICTC for having the courage to mount this gigantic play in such a tiny space; their decision is counterintuitive, but it pays off magnificently. Rather than observe arguments, we are enveloped in them. And as Bernard, Hannah, and Valentine Coverly (Avery Clark), a graduate student studying mathematics, assert, the arguing itself is trivial, but the passions that drive the arguing are the reasons we live. ICTC turns out a uniformly well-acted show: sound ensemble acting with intelligent, heady, passionate performances all around. Actors go to school so they will have the chops to play Septimus, should the opportunity arise. Adam Devine gets under Septimus's skin and does not look back; he's rakish and heartbreaking and totally swoon-worthy. Christine Albright's Thomasina is precocious, brilliant and innocent. The delicacy of their relationship is heightened by the restraint in David Epstein's direction. Rebecca Miller's Hannah and David Ian Lee's Bernard are delightful contemporary contrasts that race against each other with fire and wit and full-bodied commitment to their ideals. It is a testament to the very fine work the ICTC does on this production that all those conflicting emotions and ideas I felt years ago flooded back at the show's end. But ICTC's production lifted me beyond what I already knew of Arcadia. What had been such a private experience reading the play was suddenly a shared experience. ICTC reaffirmed to me a very basic principle: plays, while nice to read, are meant to be seen. We are meant to congregate around these pieces together and assess their worth communally, not individually. I am thankful for the reminder. So, go see this play. Think relentlessly. And help this fine ensemble sell every seat in the house."

 

SUCH GREAT HEIGHTS

"Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is filled with intellectual intrigue, suspense, philosophical debate, clever wordplay, and entertaining diatribes. Invisible City Theatre Company presented an almost impeccable revival of this gem at Manhattan Theatre Source, with a solid cast and strong creative team. Arcadia follows two timelines at the house Arcadia -- the past (1807) and the present (2004). In the past, Septimus Hodge (Adam Devine) tutors the soon-to-be-apparent mathematical genius, Thomasina Coverly (Christine Albright) amidst controversy. Septimus has been sleeping with mediocre poet Eztra Chater (Blake White)’s wife and is challenged to a duel, which he talks his way out of wittily. As the past proceeds, there is much entanglement and many affairs between the various characters. In the present, Bernard Nightingale (David Ian Lee) believes he has found a startling revelation about Lord Byron. He comes to Arcadia nearly two centuries after the past scenes and implores fellow esteemed literature savant, Hannah Jarvis (Rebecca Miller) to aid him in his quest. Some entanglement ensues here as well -- Bernard has affairs with the mother and daughter of the modern Coverly family. Also, Hannah begins to have romantic feelings for Valentine Coverly (Avery Clark). As the play continues and past and present interplay, many discoveries and parallels ensue. Valentine discovers Thomasina’s doodlings about iterated equations of fractals (where a formula is fed into itself billions of times to approximate an actual shape of a real object, as opposed to perfect, Euclidean geometry) and some proposed problems with Newton’s laws. The truth about the hermit Hannah has been researching and Byron’s whereabouts are eventually revealed, too. In Arcadia Stoppard has created a mystery of history. It is not only fascinating to watch and filled with great truths that make one ponder for hours afterwards, it is also very funny. Stoppard has a unique gift for dealing with profound, over-reaching topics while coating them in witticisms and amusing banter. His knack for assembling balanced parallels on stage remains unparalleled. A sign of a truly good ensemble is when there is no reason to highlight any of the cast, as is the case here. The entire cast was wonderful, parsing Stoppard’s script fluidly and naturally -- with realistic portrayals never missing a beat or nuance. There was not a single weak link or missed moment. This should obviously be attributed to the director, David Epstein. His work enabled this enchanting ensemble to reach such great heights. The pacing and energy was always vibrant; the staging never felt cramped even though the space was quite intimate. Technically, Michael Bevins’s period costumes were appropriately understated. Ed McNamee’s earth-toned set explored and divided the tiny playing area well. Joe W. Novak’s lighting design illustrated the different time periods aptly by making the modern sections brighter and the older sections dimmer. Overall, this production of Arcadia was a must-see for anyone who had never seen, it as well as for anyone who wished to see it again.. There was not a wrong decision made in producing this ravishing revival of this exquisite and stimulating Stoppard masterpiece."

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TRYING LORD BYRON FOR MURDER

"Brilliant British wit, introspective drama and sultry romance fuse into the present day discovery of an intriguing two-century forgotten murder mystery that deliciously ponders the interaction between science and poetry in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” now playing at Manhattan Theatre Source. The Invisible City Theater Company’s production fits perfectly with the play’s humorous yet cerebral sensibilities. The story alternates between the Coverly family’s English countryside estate in 1809, where the schoolgirl musings of young Thomasina and the insight of her charmingly decadent tutor, Septimus Hodge, unwittingly uncover the beginnings of thermodynamics in her math homework, and the same estate in the present, where a group of academics engage in a battle of wills and intellects while investigating an apparent murder mystery from two centuries before. The suspected culprit is none other than the intriguing, young, womanizing poet Lord Byron, a Trinity College mate of Hodge’s. In the estate’s past, passions enflamed as scandalous affairs and jealousy crept up among the characters, while in current day tempers flare when Bernard Nightingale myopically endeavors to convict Bryon of murder while Valentine Coverly and Hannah Jarvis begin unraveling the mysteries of Thomasina’s discovery compounded by the strange presence of an unidentified hermit who seems to have lingered at the estate after a tragic death in 1812. In the midst of the chaos, a timeless truth emerges. While science may prove the universe impossible to understand and poetry may fail to illustrate the dissonance in human experience, life is a fragile gift to savor. The content may sound heavy, but Stoppard’s radiant writing keeps the audience chuckling throughout. The first act opens with Septimus carefully explaining the meaning of “carnal embrace” as the act of “hugging a side of beef” to the innocent Thomasina, who seems to have heard rumors of one Mrs. Chater involved in the act in the gazebo. Although Stoppard wrote the play in 1993, some of the humor becomes even more pointed today, especially a short rant on the terrors of “godless republicanism,” a clever inversion of the meaning of those terms today… Although within eye contact of every audience member, the cast performs with staggering vividness, capturing the subtle nuances of the humor and conveying the dark romance of sex, death and blind obsession. Adam Devine plays Septimus Hodge perfectly from his opening slippery banter about “sexual congress” to his closing gaze that follows Thomasina offstage with a visible pity for her innocence and some eerie foreshadowing of an uncomfortable and evasive sadness lingering in his eyes. Devine masterfully exposes the character shift in Hodge and plays the part of an English gentleman with such charm that the audience cannot help but admire him. Christine Albright, a recent arrival in New York from San Diego, develops Thomasina from an innocent, hardly noticeable schoolgirl to a suddenly beautiful and sexually moving force when she beckons Septimus to teach her to dance in the final scene. David Ian Lee and Avery Clark carry the cast in the scenes set in the present. Lee delivers fiery bouts of shouting and vicious attacks as a professionally threatened and desperate Bernard Nightingale. “Why does scientific progress matter more than personalities?” he shouts, reducing Clark’s Valentine Coverly to tears. Clark’s performance started slow and his accent faltered at times, but he conveyed a cool demeanor that made Coverly a balancing force between warring Nightingale and Hannah Jarvis, played adequately by Rebecca Miller. The actors are divided between present and past, and only share the stage briefly in the final act, when the events are juxtaposed between 1812 and the present. Their invisible interactions bring chills to an already breezy room (dress warm) and do justice to Stoppard’s effort to lend meaning to the events of 1812 with the realizations achieved today. The cast brought a new, intimate production of one of Stoppard’s most intriguing story lines. Devine proves himself a perfect Septimus Hodge and Manhattan Theatre Sources demonstrates its success as one the most enjoyable small venues for theater in the Village."