Arcadia. When looked up in the dictionary, it is said to mean “a garden area of bliss” or “a simple oasis.” Both of these definitions are ironic because Arcadia, the revival currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is not simple or set in a blissful garden. Instead, playwright Tom Stoppard creates a world in which the answers are never simple and the garden is always the route of a debate. This well crafted piece requires much thinking, great care to the small details, and quite an open mind. Arcadia is a wonderful piece of theatre that, unfortunately, is simply not designed for everyone’s enjoyment.
With themes of math, science, intelligence, and love, Arcadia tells the story of what happens in the same room over 100 years apart. Set in both 1809 and the present day, the audience watches as mysteries are uncovered, theories are proven, and bonds are stretched to the max. In 1809, a young genius Thomasina (played by Bel Powley) is in the center of a wonderfully crazed group of characters. She learns all of her knowledge from her tutor Septimus (played by Tom Riley), who is desperately trying to please the entire household by hiding from the poet whose work he negatively critiqued, Mr. Ezra Chater (played by David Turner), and by making love to the mother of Thomasina, Lady Croom (played by Margaret Colin). As the days and years pass, a garden re-model begins to take form, a duel is issued, and love is turned up-side-down – all leading to a tragic death. Meanwhile, in the present, Hannah Jarvis (played by Lia Williams), a published author, and Bernard Nightingale (played by Billy Crudup), a university professor, go head to head trying to solve the unanswered questions of the past. With the help of Valentine Coverly (played by Raul Esparza), a post-graduate student currently doing research at the estate, Hanna and Bernard begin to slow uncover the truth about the exact happenings of the past. Arcadia brings both the past and present together to prove that everything happens for a reason – what that reason is, is anyone’s guess.
An ensemble of 12 cast members brings the time altering world of Arcadia to life each night. Starting in the past, Bel Powley, in her Broadway debut, delivers a stunning performance – full of heart, intrigue, and compassion. She takes this beautifully written character and breathes life into it making Thomasina funny, loveable, smart. Tom Riley, also making his debut, delivers a wonderful performance that often left the audience wanting more. His youthful energy mixed with his charming sophistication made him the perfect tutor, lady’s man, and quick thinker that Septimus truly is. The rest of the past clan featured Edward James Hyland as Jellaby, David Turner as Ezra Chater, Byron Jennings as Richard Noakes, Margret Colin as Lady Croom, and Glenn Fleshler as Captain Brice – all of whom give delightful performances. In the present, Lia Williams (seen on Broadway last in Skylight) portrays the passionate author Hannah Jarvis. Williams gives this character the much needed spunk that is required, delivering a funny yet moving performance. The true star of the show is Billy Crudup (who comes with a long list of Broadway credits, including the original production of Arcadia, and movie spots, including Eat Pray Love and Watchmen) as the high spirited professor Bernard Nightingale. Delivering a performance sure to capture the eyes of Tony Award voters, Crudup is an absolute power house. His high energy performance brings life into the roundabout search for truth. Completing the ensemble was Grace Gummer, Raul Esparza, and Noah Robbins as the Coverly siblings. This large ensemble filled the theatre with energy and passion that brought Stoppard’s world of Arcadia to life.
The time bending world of Arcadia was designed with elegance by the stunning work of the production team. Designers Hildegard Bechtler (designs include Broadway’s Hedda Gabler and The Seagull) on set, Gregory Gale (designs include Broadway’s Rock of Ages and Urinetown) on costumes, and Donald Holder (designs include Broadway’s Spider-Man and The Boy from Oz) on lighting worked together to bring the picture perfect plan for this new revival. The stunning room of Arcadia, complete with a time altering table, is lit with wonderful ease, with clear time change lighting, and filled with period pieces, that easily allow the audience to determine the difference in years. The one design element that did not meet all expectations was the sound design by David Van Tieghem (designs include Broadway’s Doubt and A Behanding in Spokane). With loud sound effects and less than capable microphones, the extremely complex plot was often hard to hear leaving the audience confused and bewildered; however, the stunning direction of David Leveaux (past Broadway productions include Nine and Jumpers) helped clear up many of the loose ends. While there moments that dragged and could have been sped up, these were over ruled by the wonderful pictures that Leveaux painted upon the stage. Masterfully weaving in and out of different time zones, Arcadia put forth a stunning directorial performance that is sure to get Leveaux yet another Tony Award Nomination.This current limited run revival of Arcadia comes complete with great acting, beautiful design, genius directing, and an amazing plot. While audiences might be over whelmed by the complexity of this play, there is no true reason to shy away from what could be a great night out at the theatre. When going to Arcadia, be prepared to feel, laugh, and above all think.
Review By: James Russo & Ryan Oliveti