By Sarah Downs
I had one of those tingly New York theater experiences last Friday. You know the kind — you walk into an unprepossessing theater space, off the beaten path, not sure what to expect, and witness some astonishing theater. In their production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Bedlam Theater Company proves yet again that it is not budget that makes great theater; it’s talent, creativity and boldness.
Located on the second floor of a 19th century church, The West End Theatre is a cozy, quirky little space with high ceilings and several rows of stadium seating. Nothing about this space feels small, however. Director Eric Tucker has leaned into WET’s unique topography, making a virtue of necessity, to the extent that you cannot imagine a more apt setting. Tucker’s inventiveness springs from and adapts to the environment, as the excellent cast literally and figuratively juggles time, place and action. It’s utterly captivating.
Stoppard’s play is complicated, intellectual and witty, without being facile. By which I mean to say — it’s Stoppard. Who else would embed a love story within a serious discussion of philosophy, mathematics, poetry, the conflict between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and the stressed out ‘publish or perish’ world of acadamia, all taking place simultaneously in two centuries. Present and past weave throughout. The audience participates in this relationship, as through a mirror. In Act 1 we sit in the theater seats, while for Act II we trade places, and watch the action from the stage.
The play opens on the schoolroom at Sidley Park, an English country house. The year is 1809 and Thomasina Coverly (a delightful Caroline Grogan), a precocious teen, is hard at work on her scientific formulae, under the somewhat lax supervision of her tutor Septimus Hodge (a handsome, confident Shaun Taylor Corbett). Thomasina is more interested in biology than calculus, however. Rumor of a houseguest’s illicent embrace in the gazebo presents too tempting a distraction. The abrupt arrival of Ezra Chater (a wonderfully pompous Randolph Curtis Rand) demanding satisfaction of Hodge for Chater’s wife’s indiscretion interrupts the lesson. Chater proves easily distracted from his state of high dudgeon. A little flattery goes a long way. Enter the bumbling landscape designer Richard Noakes (a comically earnest Jamie “Smitty” Smithson), followed closely by the lady of the house, Lady Croom (an elegantly domineering Lisa Birnbaum). Noakes’ planned transformation of Lady Croom’s gracious flowerbeds and green lawns into the lugubrious, carefully designed randomness of Romantic garden design have rendered her seriously unamused. The presence of Lord Byron as a housegest, however, has had the opposite effect. Lady Croom is fairly swooning.
Switching in an instant to the modern day, we remain at Sidley Park, looking back at the events of 1809, particularly the tantalizing possibility that Lord Byron did indeed have a connection to the house. Academics flock to the estate, in search of answers. Elan Zafir as the arrogant, self-centered Professor Bernard Nightingale pulls you into his orbit by sheer force of will. Zafir is by turns intense, comical and sympathetic. You can’t help but feel sorry for Nightingale in his smarmy desperation as he grasps for a fleeting moment in the intellectual spotlight. As his unflinching, alluring nemesis Hannah, Zuzanna Szadkowski operates seamlessly on many levels, layering bravado over subtle flashes of vulnerability. Szadkowski makes an instant connection that never falters. Hannah has found an ally in Valentine Coverly (a sweetly unsure Mike Labbadia), modern day scion of the Coverly family. In perhaps a reflection of his ancestor Thomasina’s naive brilliance, Valentine is also a gifted – one might say obsessive – mathematician.
Past and present merge as the play progresses, ramping up to a dizzying, controlled chaos and unexpected denouement. Director Eric Tucker brilliantly highlights the interconnedness of present through an ingenious dance of moving props, surprise entrances, improvised lighting and unexpected costume changes. Add to that the actors’ verbal facility that makes light of the play’s textual density and intellectual heft. It gives a remarkable immediacy to their work, evaporating the distance between stage and audience. Hence: tingles.
Arcadia, written by Tom Stoppard, directed by Eric Tucker. With Alan Altschuler, Lisa Birnbaum, Shaun Taylor Corbett, Caroline Grogan, Deychen Volino-Gyetsa, Mike Labbadia, Arash Mokhtar, Randolph Curtis Rand, Jamie “Smitty” Smithson, Zuzanna Szadkowski, Devin Vega and Elan Zafir.
BEDLAM theater company, Eric Tucker, Artistic Director. At the West End Theater, 263 West 86th St., NYC. THROUGH December 3
For tickets go to www.bedlam.org. Run Time 3 hours with one 15 minute intermission.