“Arcadia” An Important Masterpiece from Oklahoma City University
It is a delightful and never-ending source of amazement to find the artistic level of talent in the heartland of Oklahoma. We have a number of great theatre groups producing outstanding productions to rival Broadway. This, of course, begins with the inspiration and education found in universities such as Oklahoma City University (OKCU) with outstanding music, theatre, art, and dance departments. The Oklahoma City University Theatre Department is presenting Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play “Arcadia” from December 5 through December 8, 2019. “Arcadia” is not an easy play to mount, and it is certainly an educationally stimulating play reaching across time to explore the fluidity of time in a universe which may be random or designed.
The play is set in an English country house, Sidley Park in 1809 and 1812 juxtaposed with present-day 1993. A young prodigy, Thomasina Coverly, is being tutored by Septimus Hodge, a contemporary and classmate of Lord Byron. Thomasina’s genius is revealed in her understanding of mathematics, physics and philosophical disciplines including chaos theory, determinism, and other ideas far ahead of her time. She is also precocious, teasing Septimus about defining the meaning of carnal embrace. Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom is there along with her brother, Captain Brice. Also visiting is the minor poet Ezra Chater. Lady Chater and Lord Byron never appear but are apparently lurking apparently about the place. They each own quirky personalities and people can be very funny especially when discovered in a carnal embrace and depending upon the generous discretion of loyal retainers.
In the present day at this same residence Valentine Coverly and his sister Chloe are descendants of the Coverly family of the earlier period. Valentine is researching the biology of the grouse, gathering in abundance on the grounds for centuries. They are joined by Hannah, a writer researching a mysterious occupant of the nearby hermitage, deceased in 1834. She is also somewhat of an expert in the history of gardens, an area of expertise appreciated by the English. Bernard, a professor delving into the life of Lord Byron and the possibility of historic scandal is lured into discovering evidence in support of his theory. “Arcadia” is also educational and enlightening as well as extremely entertaining. This is a challenging show for any theatre to undertake, but that is, of course, one of the main objectives of education; to challenge students and the audience.
The cast and technical crew meet the challenge with aplomb. The audience, riveted, also meets the challenge due to the skill of the performers. Theatre is a discipline requiring an abundance of skill and talent in equal measure and this production reveals their amazing abilities. This is a show demonstrating beautifully how it is that Oklahoma City has such an amazing theatrical community. “Arcadia” is a perfect example explaining why Oklahoma City boasts such a high caliber of community theatre and brilliance in equity theatres such as Lyric Theatre, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, (CityRep), Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park and The Pollard in Guthrie.
“Arcadia” is a testament to the brilliance of Director Hal Kohlman, a dedicated artist shining in his skill as a director, mentor, and teacher and using his ability as an actor to bring out the best in his cast. This production of “Arcadia” is a tribute to the playwright, Tom Stoppard, demonstrating exactly why the play has received so many awards and nominations including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play of 1993.
Sydney Hagen designs a marvelous set, workable and beautiful. In both time periods there is a table, the dining room table, used to study and set upon it are the props utilized by actors in both time periods, quill and inkpot found side by side with laptop, half-eaten sandwiches, and the dinner for the tortoise called Plautus in the 19th century and Lightning in present day. Sound designer Jacob Henry and lighting designer Nicholas Villemarette work with expert technical director Luke Hadsall in creating a remarkable ambiance for Hagen’s set. Props master is Audrey Mantia, who assembled the period pieces that blend the centuries beautifully as well as representing the period accurately. Costume designer Alix Phelan creates beautiful Regency costumes and combines them with stylish modern attire that looks and feels appropriate for the actors and the audience. Eliana Perez keeps the entire show running without a single glitch noticed. (There are always glitches, unavoidable obstacles that keep a backstage crew busy, the trick is to prevent these little problems from making a big appearance of their own, and this crew does that superbly with excellent organization.) This cast of college-age students performs characters representing an entire generation in age range. And yet not a single actor seemed either too old or too young to play their part. “Arcadia” has a cast of 12 students with four equally talented understudies for all the parts. They are all-stars, glittering with talent, throbbing with skill and ability to set the world on fire. If one looks very hard, one can always find an imperfection, but in this cast, all imperfections become invisible as they are used to enhance perfection. Like a beauty mark.
Zachary Scott Prall is a very exciting and apt Septimus, relating with great skill to his beautiful young co-star Olivia Laskin as Thomasina Coverly. Laskin’s portrayal of a precocious and gifted 13-year old girl growing into a slightly more sophisticated typical teenager of the period is brilliant. She performs gracefully and winsomely, charming the audience as well as her tutor. Prall’s response exhibits a perfect blend of restraint and encouragement. The two together have marvelous chemistry as well as delightfully representing the cultural norms of the Regency period in which they live. Carolann Stout is Lady Croom, an aristocratic lady of the age, yet not bound so closely to the prejudice of the times that she cannot recognize that the brilliance of her daughter requires equal consideration to her son, Augustus, adroitly played by Bret Williams. A highlight in humor from any age is Chater, the mediocre poet more concerned with the recognition of his limited skills than being cuckolded. Owen Whitham is positively hilarious in this role. Isaac Sorell is Captain Brice, pompous and anxious to maintain his privileged reputation and unwittingly somewhat of an object of derision. Sorell is adept in exhibiting this amusing demeanor. Casey Kassal is Jellaby, a servant who, knowing his own place uses the knowledge to rise secretively above his station. John Metcalf is Noakes, the landscape gardener whose artistic gardens become worthy of historical notice. Noakes takes himself seriously, and Metcalf explores the potential of his endeavors artfully, humorously and effectively. These eight actors playing historical characters due so with believability combined with respect for the culture of English class and pretensions.
The modern present-day depicted in “Arcadia” (1993) brings together several researching academics and writers. Valentine Coverly and his sister Chloe are the descendants still residing at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, England. Valentine is played wonderfully by Duke Bartholomae, a mathematician who is confident, intelligent and dedicated to history. His discovery of the genius displayed in the young Thomasina is remarkably poignant. His sister, Chloe is a modern reflection of Thomasina in many ways. She is winningly portrayed by Sydnee Lasseigne; the connection is muted but uncanny. The two, somewhat gracelessly admit two outsiders into their domain to pursue their own inquiries. Reluctantly sharing points of knowledge and discovering value in each other’s information and more importantly their conclusions. Hannah Jarvis, the writer responsible for a best seller about Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s mistress is welcomed. She is now researching the nameless hermit who resided in the area during the early to the mid-19th century. Mary Taylor Hesterberg plays the lovely Hannah immune to the advances of men and more interested in academic research with consummate theatrical skills. They are joined by the obstreperous professor eager to earn acclaim for his amazing discovery, determined to bend the facts to fit his scandalous theory. Bernard Nightingale is the name of the next celebrity to grace the cover of People magazine and appear on significant morning talk shows. Maxwell McIntire is the name of the actor who brings this rather buffoonish character to remarkably ludicrous light. Whitham amazingly creates a mature yet silly seeker of fame and fortune. His intelligence is clear, but his wisdom is lacking making him a delightful object of derision and ridicule. He is distinct from but definitely a reminder of an earlier buffoon in Chater. Whitham’s and McIntire’s Bernard are distinctly different yet both provide a measure of priceless mirth. Valentine and Chloe have a younger brother, Gus Coverly who remains mute throughout the production. He is well-played with expressive body language by Bret Williams who is also Augustus Coverly in the earlier century.
Each of these actors performs with a skill and talent heralding a promise of success and professionalism. Scene changes are smoothly done by the actors and as time/scene changes they are phenomenal and elegant. All twelve cast members display an incredible perfection in timing, an essential quality on stage. Whether they pursue theatre as a vocation or avocation this training and talent will stand them all in good stead. Unseen and unrecognized are the understudies who ensure that the play will go on regardless of any problems. These four actors do the same work as those on-stage and should be recognized. They are Karenna Mudd, understudy for Chloe and Thomasina, Emily Wollenberg, understudy for Hannah and Lady Croom, Hunter Douglas, understudy for Bernard, Noakes, Brice and Chater and Luke Riggs, understudy for Septimus, Jellaby, Valentine and Gus. “Arcadia” is a play that benefits greatly from expert dramaturgy. These actors perform this function with admirable results. Such are the rigors of academia.
“Arcadia” is an important piece of theatre for the year but unfortunately runs only four days from December 5 through December 8 with only five showings. Curtain is 8:00 pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday night with two matinees: Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm. “Arcadia” is being shown at the comfortable Berg Theatre on the OKCU campus at 2501 N. Blackwelder in Oklahoma City. Access is best from Classen Boulevard then west on 25th Street with parking to the east of Blackwelder. For tickets visit OKCU.edu or call the box office at 405-208-5227. “Arcadia” is wonderful and illuminating entertainment.