Palm Beach Dramaworks audiences have had to grapple with the weighty plays of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and such absurdists as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. But with its first foray into the canon of Great Britain’s Tom Stoppard, producing his Olivier Award-winning Arcadia, as dense with ideas as it is with wordplay, the company may be serving up its most challenging work yet.
Set initially in a stately home in Derbyshire, England, in 1809, the play moves back and forth between that time and the late 20th century. In the latter time frame, a couple of academics attempt to solve the riddle of what took place on these premises so many years before.
As Peter Simon Hilton, who plays university don Bernard Nightingale, puts it, “It’s about looking at the past and seeing how it affects the present. It is the exploration of a particular time in history where science and art were at odds with each other and collided. Then there was a lot of heat and sexual energy and excitement. And the leaves are being taken off the onion, as it were, by a group of modern academics. And it’s a mystery as to what has happened. It’s a little bit of a whodunit and by the end, the audience knows the solution. Or not, if they haven’t listened.”
The plot, of course, is merely a vehicle for the themes on Stoppard’s mind. “It’s about relationships and about the past and the present, how they are impacted by order and disorder,” says J. Barry Lewis, who directs the Dramaworks production. “The idea of certainty and uncertainty, that essence of the uncertainty of love. I don’t say that too lightly because I believe at the core it’s about how we connect, relate, disconnect or, by a series of purely accidental actions, create the world and our lives together.”
Does your head hurt yet?
Relax, advises Hilton, for in addition to Stoppard’s cerebral side, there is his playful comic side. “The thing we mustn’t forget, although the play is full of intellectual ideas and themes, it’s also incredibly funny,” he says. “These characters, even though they may be academics, they are quirkily passionate about how they get to what they want to get to. From there rises a lot of physical comedy, a lot of verbal humor.”
“He’s written a very complex play that is also delightfully funny,” says Vanessa Morosco, who plays author Hannah Jarvis opposite Hilton, her husband in real life. “It moves just like a farce.”
True, but Stoppard does stock Arcadia with lots of math and science. Are audiences expected to understand algorithms, chaos theory and Newtonian physics?
“Simply put, no,” says Lewis. “We may know a little about Newton, who he was, or we may know something about thermodynamics because we’ve used it in our lives, whether we realized it or not. But it is not essential to understand the details. It is essential to understand the people and what they are exploring, how they interrelate, interact.”
“I don’t think Stoppard really cares about everyone receiving everything all the time,” adds Hilton. “When you see both these worlds – the early 19th century and the present-day worlds – it becomes very obvious visually what is happening. Even though you may not get all the intricacies of the references, I think it actually tells the story very clearly. I think from that perspective, it’s actually very accessible to an audience.”
“Also, many of the characters don’t understand what’s being said,” notes Morosco. “One of the joys of watching the play – just like in life – is watching a specialist try to explain to a layman what it is that they do. That is an incredibly unique skill set that most highly accomplished people don’t have.”
There are simpler plays by Stoppard that Dramaworks could have selected, but not a better one, according to Lewis. “We have long had lists of plays, pieces that have spoken to us individually and collectively. I think in looking at Stoppard’s body of work, ‘Arcadia’ was our favorite of his. ‘Arcadia’ always ranks very high in lists of the best plays of the past 25 years. I feel it is Stoppard’s finest work.”
Arcadia may take some effort on theatergoers’ part, but Hilton feels certain it will be worthwhile. Why? “When do you get the opportunity to see such a great play? If it comes into town, then you’re a fool not to take advantage of that,” he insists. “However, it’s also going to be incredibly enjoyable and fun. We will be swamped by all the intellectual themes and confused by the academia a lot of the time, but we will come away having had a really fun time.
“So don’t feel the pressure of it being an intellectual exercise. Let it all wash over you and enjoy it.”
ARCADIA, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. From Friday, March 31, to Sunday, April 30. $66. Call: 561-514-4042.