Friday, June 06, 2014

SPT's "Arcadia" brings past and present together

Trevor Young Marston and Izabel Mar in Arcadia (photo Paul Bestock)
Seattle Public Theater
through June 8 (very close to sold out)

Tom Stoppard is a very, very intellectual playwright. Some of his plays are more accessible than others. For me, Arcadia and Travesties are two of the harder plays to come to grips with. Seattle Public Theater's current production of Arcadia has some strong performances and a very nice set design (by Craig Wollam) that help bring more understanding to a complicated and "heady" play.

A rather large cast is headed, first, by a wonderfully grown-up and arch performance by teen Izabel Mar. She plays Thomasina, a preternaturally smart 1820s gentleteen being tutored by the almost-able-to-keep-up-with-her Septimus (Trevor Young Marston). They start off the play by talking about higher math, physics, and "carnal embrace" which the tutor, embarrassed, passes off as "hugging meat." He's the one who has been hugging the meat of another man's wife in the gazebo, though.

That man, the easily bamboozled Chater (Brandon Ryan), wants to duel with him until Septimus convinces him that Chater's wife was trying to gain Chater a good review of his latest poetry book.

This setting of the table, fairly easily understood, leaps forward suddenly into the future 180 years later, where Hannah Jarvis (Alyson Scadron Branner) is researching what happened to the manor's gardens 180 years earlier, when they were completely renovated toward a wild, untamed appearance, complete with a hermitage. Her research is complicated by Bernard Nightingale (Evan Whitfield) who is convinced that the poet Lord Byron encountered Chater at the manor and killed him, due to what seems like an abrupt disappearance of Chater from other historical materials.

Stoppard allows us to know that Lord Byron was also at the manor at the same time as our first characters, and another 1990's researcher, Valentine (Trick Danneker), can prove it by a grouse hunting book kept for sporting records. What Stoppard seems to be saying is that two things can be true at the same time: what really happened is nothing like what historians and researchers might surmise and what historians and researchers might surmise could look to be plausibly true!

The audience knows that Chater was not killed in a duel with Lord Byron, but for quite a bit of the play, it looks like it would be a plausible explanation of Chater's disappearance by those trying to piece it together 180 years later.

Of course, the play throws in Fermat's Last Theorem and other scientific aspects to further confuse or delight, depending on your levels of education and desire to bend your brain. And there is a turtle, in this case living, that perhaps has lived much longer than 180 years, or perhaps not.

Other very talented actors litter the stage with tiny roles that may delight or confound. Kelly Kitchens directs and as far as I can determine, generally handles the material well, though the play is so complicated I have nothing to compare it with, having never seen another live production. Perhaps she could have helped Whitfield modulate his bit-too-over-the-top performance, though perhaps it's intentional, since other plays sometimes encourage him to perform at a much lower key, and this may have been desired to show a range of capability.

If you can get a ticket as the run draws to a close (even with a couple of extra performances added to manage the demand), you'll be able to make up your own mind what it's all about. I enjoyed the talent on stage, as I usually do, and that made the evening more bearable during the more confused and challenging portions of Stoppard's 1993 play.