Ponder “Arcadia” Through April 30 at Palm Beach Dramaworks
By Skip Sheffield
Playwright Tom Stoppard is one clever chap… maybe too clever for his own good.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has bravely mounted Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning “Arcadia” through April 30 at 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. This play is complex, dense and sometimes confusing. Yet it has moments of high humor and style to burn.
It helps to have a passing knowledge of how things work in academia. A knowledge of English literature is helpful too, as is a familiarity with England’s class system that persists to this day.
“Arcadia” is set both in 1809-1812 and the present day in an English manor house, beautifully rendered by first-timer Anne Mundell. This can be a bit disorienting, because scenes change from more than two hundred years ago to present day in alternating fashion, except in the final scene when most all the characters appear together.
Costumes (Brian O’Keefe), lighting (Don Thomas) and sound (Steve Shapiro) are of paramount importance in this sensory experience. In some ways the characters are stock Brits, both in the past and the present.
In the past it is the characters of Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Cohn) and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Ryan Zachary Ward) who are of primary interest. Thomasina at age 13 years and 10 months is both precocious and brilliant. Actress Caitlin Cohn is tiny and appears childlike, but with a resume of more than 25 productions, a membership in Actors’ Equity and Screen Actors Guild and an education at New York University, I’ll wager she is an adult very adept at playing much younger. At any rate she is totally believable as Thomasina, and she works in perfect concert with Ryan Zachary Ward, who realizes he has a prodigy on his hands.
Playing the thankless role of foolish third-rate poet Ezra Chater is Cliff Burgess, who does the fop thing well. James Andreassi is properly pompous as landscape architect Richard Noakes, whose plan to redo the gardens of stately Sidley Park from Classical to Romantic has the lady of the house, Lady Croom (Margery Lowe) in a swivet.
In the 21st century we have imperious Hannah Jarvis (Vanessa Morosco), who is undertaking a definitive history of Sidley Park, but clashes with the pompous, foppish professor Bernard Nightingale (Peter Simon Hilton), who is convinced Ezra Chater was killed in a duel by the renowned Romantic poet, Lord Byron.
In this segment we have another smart girl, Chloe (Arielle Fishman) and her even smarter brother Valentine (Britt Michael Gordon), who is undertaking an exhaustive study of the grouse population of Sidley Park. A younger brother Gus (Casey Butler) is mute.
Listening to the various dissertations and intrigues of the inhabitants of Sidley Park, I was reminded of the relatively modern “chaos theory,” which posits before any intellectual breakthrough there is a moment when the brain goes haywire. I suspect playwright Stoppard is familiar with this theory and he put it to good use in parodying the peccadilloes of Great Britain past and present.
At any rate “Arcadia” is a cerebral adventure with some sensuous delights.
Tickets are $66. Call 561-514-4042, ext. 2 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.