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Vol. LXII, No. 25
 
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
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Music/Theater


SCHOLARS AND LOVERS: Thomasina Coverly (Laura Hankin), mathematics prodigy — inquisitive about all matters academic and erotic, studies her lessons, in a publicity shot for Princeton Summer Theater’s season-opening production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” playing through June 22 at the Hamilton Murray Theater.

Tom Stoppard’s Verbal, Intellectual, and Erotic Acrobatics Bring “Arcadia” to Life in Princeton Summer Theater Opener

Donald Gilpin

Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” the thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Laura Hankin) asks her 22-year-old tutor (Daniel Kublick) in the opening lines of Tom Stoppard’s intellectually dazzling Arcadia, currently playing in Princeton Summer Theater’s season opener at Hamilton Murray Theater.

“Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef,” responds the ever-witty Septimus. But Thomasina’s inquiries — academic and otherwise — are only beginning, as she digresses from her mathematics assignments.

“Is that all?” she pursues.

“No…” Septimus continues, “a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse … caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.”

Set in 1809 at a large English country estate, then alternately in the present and finally in both eras simultaneously, Arcadia addresses not only Thomasina’s mischievous question, but additional issues of thermodynamics, chaos theory, algorithms, Newtonian physics, landscape gardening, literary history of the early Romantic period and many varieties of extravagant human behavior.

Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” will run from June 19-22, with performances Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-7062 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org for information.

You won’t need a graduate degree in literature or science to enjoy this play — though some English newspapers reportedly sent their science correspondents along with their drama critics to review the initial 1993 production in London, but you may find it frustrating to miss some of the swiftly-moving subtleties of Mr. Stoppard’s verbal pyrotechnics and the detailed complexities of the characters’ mathematical, scientific, and literary explorations. There are hilarious riffs, lively human interactions, and rich romantic entanglements throughout the modern and early 19th century scenes, though the erudition and sheer cleverness at times overwhelm.

Professional director Alexis Williams and PST artistic director Heather May have assembled an impressive cast of twelve to undertake this challenging material. Allen Grimm, designer and technician at Washington’s Arena Stage and elsewhere over the past ten years, returns for his second summer with PST to lead a first-rate production team, featuring Ms. May’s stunning set and colorful, spot-on costuming. The well rehearsed ensemble of mostly Princeton University undergraduates and recent graduates, with a couple of welcome NYU additions, ably assumes the British accents and grasps the lightning fast Stoppard repartee, embodying with conviction both the 19th century and the contemporary figures.

Arcadia, in seven different scenes over two acts, presents the story of the Coverly family of Sidley Park, Derbyshire, 1809, and also the story of the current day researchers trying to reconstruct that story. Septimus, a young scientist and classmate of Lord Byron, tutors Thomasina Coverly. The elegant Lady Croom (Irene Lucio) commandingly, passionately, and outspokenly declares her affections for both Septimus and Byron, who is a much discussed visitor to Sidley Park.

Meanwhile a distinguished landscape architect (Shawn Fennell) is converting the gardens from the classic to the picturesque romantic style, striking a conflict between head and heart that recurs throughout the play; while the pompous, cuckold poet Ezra Chater (Tyler Crosby) frets over his beautiful, unfaithful wife, who has affairs with both Septimus and with the foolish Captain Brice (John Hardin), brother of Lady Croom. Mrs. Chater and Lord Byron never appear on stage.

In the contemporary scenes, Arcadia presents, in exactly the same Sidley Park garden room, Hannah Jarvis (Shannon Lee Clair), a no-nonsense author of gardening books and a book about Byron’s mistress; literature professor Bernard Nightingale (Aaron Strand), a ripe subject for Stoppard’s parody of all things excessive in the world of university intellectual pretentiousness, who is doing research on Lord Byron; and three young Coverly descendants: Valentine (Max Rosmarin), a mathematician romantically inclined towards Hannah; Chloe, enamored of Nightingale; and the socially withdrawn Gus, who is also taken with Hannah.

The play becomes a sort of intellectual mystery, a pas de deux between randomness and order, an interweaving of past and present in the spirit of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, as the characters struggle to put together the puzzles of history and to make sense of the capricious behavior of their forebears.

The PST ensemble is strong — engaging, larger-than-life when necessary, and well focused in character throughout — well balanced and well rehearsed in a way that makes it impossible to single out individuals. Ms. May’s set design with a sharply sloping raked stage that helps to involve the audience in the proceedings and paintings on the walls and backdrops that surround actors and audience with an abundance of nature in the style of Monet’s water lilies at Giverny — different country and time period, but beautiful and highly effective nonetheless.

Arcadia is a brilliant piece of work, and this PST production is remarkably strong. There were occasional problems with clarity and enunciation on opening night, and the warm temperature of the Murray Theater was undoubtedly also responsible for the exit of a few audience members at intermission. But the biggest problem here is that Mr. Stoppard has provided too much of a good thing. Three hours of such wit and erudition, as funny and surprising and dazzling as it is, may be beyond the capacity or patience of some audiences. Also, as lavish, professional, energetic and polished as the PST production is, reading the play may yield as many riches, with fewer frustrations over missed bits.

But bravo to Ms. Williams, Ms. May, and their high-powered, talented company! Arcadia is a wonderfully ambitious piece to launch PST’s fortieth season, with much excitement to look forward to in the weeks ahead: William Inge’s Bus Stop, June 26-July 6; J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, July 10 to 27; and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, July 31 to August 10.

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