The general consensus among scholars, readers, and thespians seems to be that Arcadia is Tom Stoppard's greatest work. This is impressive, considering works like Rosencrantz and Guilderstein Are Dead and Shakespeare In Love are in his list of play- and screenwriting credits. But it seems there's something special about Arcadia.
Google it. Try it. We're going to have to Google again later in this piece, so you might as well start now. You'll find reviews that highlight in loving fashion its careful, precise tangle of past and present worlds, and its mixture of complex mathematical and scientific theories with down-to-earth, human emotions.
You may also find that it's the type of play that sends high schoolers diving for Cliffs Notes, anxious to get past the rich, complex language and understand what, exactly, Stoppard is saying. It's that kind of intimidating play.
So for the Village Repertory Company to produce the show at the Woolfe Street Theater is a bit of a risk, but it's a risk well worth taking, at least according to artistic director, Keely Enright.
"A play like this doesn't get done in Charleston," she says as we talk about Stoppard, her cast, and her theater. "But Arcadia has an emotional resonance that struck me, that I hadn't found in his work before. It has such visual beauty, and merging the two worlds — past and present — on stage seemed so intriguing. It was an amazing challenge."
The show is, at its heart, a mystery. The action takes place in a single room in an English manor house. The present cast tries to unravel the secret of a hermit, who lived almost 200 years before them. The past cast simply lives their lives on stage. They, of course, have no idea their lives will one day become a mystery.
In the past we meet a young girl named Thomasina (played by College of Charleston student Kaitlyn Lieck), with a mind for math and science well advanced for her time. Her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Young Stowe), finds sex, love, and drama as he tries, through the course of three years, not to fall in love with his charge.
The past also includes frequent mention of Lord Byron, an unseen guest at the manor house, as well as a slew of other lords and ladies, captains and children, who complicate the question the present cast tries to answer. Who is the hermit of Sidley Park, and what happened to send him running from the public world?
To balance the two worlds, to which she refers as Past and Future (the present being in the future of the past), Enright broke rehearsal time in two. Each group of actors rehearsed separately over the course of a month and a half. "I wanted the casts to have more time to digest the piece, to really understand the language and ideas," said Enright. "It's the type of play where, no matter how many times you read it or rehearse it, you discover something new every night."
And separating the two casts helped because, as she said, "the future cast didn't watch a lot of past cast, and the future cast should be in the dark. They're the ones trying to unravel this world from 200 years before."
Enright calls the future cast the workhorses of the show. "They take you through the story and ideas and make it all accessible. But the beauty and the romance in the show comes from the past."
Of course, there are complications when it comes to producing and combining what amounts to two separate shows on a single stage, blending artifacts and props from the past and the future worlds in a way that should feel seamless to the audience. The amount of papers needed for the worlds grew quickly confusing, as Thomasina's notes spanned 200 years. But as a touchstone, Enright shared this tidbit: Stoppard was heavily influenced by the ideas behind Back to the Future. "If you think about it," she said. "The ideas behind Back to the Future are really complex. But everybody understands Back to the Future."
And though the show delves deeply into those mathematical and scientific theories that so interest Thomasina, Enright feels it's accessible to all kinds of audiences. "At the core, Arcadia is about people. About how sex and love change everything, and the chaos that they bring. That's the one thing you can't predict, that you can't count on. If we can get that across in a really human way, then what you do or do not know about Lord Byron or thermodynamics shouldn't matter. Viewers can always Google that later," she laughs. "And it's a comedy, too. It's really very funny. But comedy doesn't equal sitcom."
Cast member Josh Wilhoit couldn't agree more. He's part of the past cast, and his thoughts echo Enright's. "I've noticed something new at every rehearsal," he says. "There's just so much there, and it's so intelligently written and constructed. The way it blends science and literature and the way we know ourselves. It really illustrates the way we understand things through art. And at the end of the day it's all about love."
All about love. And theories. And literature.
As for the mysteries involved, and whether the audience will walk away with all the answers, perhaps Stoppard himself said it best: "When we have found all the meanings and lost all the mysteries, we will be alone, on an empty shore."