Landscape gardening, puberty, chaos theory, infidelity, academic competitiveness, Lord Byron, intellectual parochialism, the solving of a centuries-old mystery, classicism, romanticism, and the second law of thermodynamics; these are the stuff of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play, Arcadia. What fun! It was a great way to end this year’s visit to the Shaw Festival!
Seeing this production offered a rare treat in theater going; a production that was thoroughly enjoyable but with no surprises. I say ‘rare’ because I like surprises in the theater; a new interpretation, a fresh point of view. There was none of that here, and yet it was a terrific evening’s entertainment. Being a Shaw Festival production, it was no surprise that the set and costumes were beautiful. I was not surprised that the actors were talented and beautiful. The play is set in an English country house drawing room. The action alternates between events taking place in the early 17th century and related events in the present day. ‘Time’ is a almost a character in Arcadia.
I’d seen the play before so I knew it was sharp and witty. This play is smarter than I am. It challenges me to understand it. Enjoying Arcadia is not a passive experience. I like that. In that sense, it reminds me of Michael Frayn’s wonderful play Copenhagen. The plot involves science of which I have only the vaguest understanding but my lack of knowledge doesn’t interfere with the theatrical enjoyment. Arcadia is like Copenhagen; but funny!
Tom Stoppard is a prolific writer of plays for the stage and the screen; both large and small. I first become aware of him from his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for which he won his first Tony Award for Best Play, in 1968. He won his fifth Tony Award 40 years later in 2007 for The Coast of Utopia. I recall seeing a television production of On The Razzle, his play adapted from the same source material that gave Thornton Wilder The Merchant of Yonkers and The Matchmaker…and gave Jerry Herman Hello Dolly. Along the way there were The Real Thing, Travesties, The Real Inspector Hound and many more. His screenplays cover a spectrum from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to the 2012 re-make of Anna Karenina. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love.
My only suggestion to improve the experience seeing Arcadia at the Shaw Festival would be to stage it in one of the Festival’s other venues. The staging feels like it was meant to be performed on a proscenium stage. That works well for the play but sacrifices some of the intimacy I hope for in Studio Theater productions. I wish they’d swapped venues with Faith Healer. Both would have benefitted. Venue notwithstanding, it was a terrific production and a suitable ending for Niagara-On-The-Lake 2013.