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Review: ‘Arcadia’ a strong production with a thought-provoking script

On the surface, you might call “Arcadia” a good English mystery.
Another in a long line of successful literary projects that keep us longing to know the who, what, when and where of a story through mystery. Or, perhaps, it’s a play incorporating a series of compelling and complicated mysteries that have been bound together to successfully keep a theater audience occupied at the end of a long, summer day.
Was the romantic poet Lord Bryon a killer? Who actually is the hermit on the country estate in Derbyshire? Who will Lady Chater next seduce?
But, wait. Underneath the surface of our summer journey through paradise, as well as through the characters’ travels from order to disorder, there is greater purpose. We, as audience, are also asked to ponder such earth shaking questions as do we live with the certain knowledge of extinction, not only of ourselves, but of our species?
Can we find meaning by questing, even in the face of failure? What makes us matter? Are we forever re-enacting the patterns of the past? Heavy subject matter. Not light summer fare. It will take more than one summer evening to fathom the thought in this play.
Center for Faith and the Arts states within its mission that it “seeks to heighten spiritual experience with the power and meaning of art.”
Its theatrical wing, St. Thomas Players, with its current production of “Arcadia” has found a perfect theatrical vehicle for such heightened artistic exploration.
St. Thomas Players should not only be enthusiastically applauded for its strong production, but for its bravery in choosing such an outstanding and thought provoking script.
First performed in 1993, Arcadia has been called “the greatest play of its time.” Its playwright, Tom Stoppard, is one of our most celebrated playwrights. His successes include “Travesties,” “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead,” “Shakespeare In Love,” and Tony Award-winner “The Coast of Utopia.”
The action of Stoppard’s “Arcadia” has stories that alternate between 1809/1812 and the early 21st century.
In one, the early 19th century characters are preoccupied with secret diaries, illicit passions and professional rivalries while a gifted young pupil proposes theory beyond even her comprehension.
In the second story and two hundred years later academic adversaries are trying to place together limited pieces of 19th century historical and scientific puzzles in their need for knowledge and truth.
Artistic ensemble presentation is strong. Without individual understanding of the periods portrayed, the concepts presented, as well as the style of the play, “Arcadia” could itself be an unfinished puzzle left for later day completion.
Effective direction and design, however, leads the way, with intelligent and comic characterization closely following.
This slightly longer than usual production moves particularly well through its first act and only somewhat more slowly through the remainder. In other words, it keeps you engaged throughout.
And, as the characters, from both stories, symbolically dance the performance to its conclusion, Stoppard’s highly complicated mystery echoes the power of art. And, importantly, points to our continuing need to understand the rules that govern our existence as well as the impulse to overthrow them.

Jim Epperson is professor emeritus of theatre arts at Catawba College.

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