A challenge for audience

`Arcadia': A primer helps viewers navigate the intricate Colonial Players production.

October 24, 2002|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Although it's commonplace for opera-goers to attend preperformance lectures and study libretti before attending unfamiliar operas, such preparation is seldom part of ordinary theater-going. This changed when Colonial Players Inc. scheduled a challenging work by a major playwright with Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, realizing that audience members might welcome some advance preparation.

Winner of the 1993 Laurence Olivier award for best play when it premiered in London, and two years later on Broadway the winner of the New York Drama Critics Award, Stoppard's Arcadia moves beyond the usual human appetites to the desire to know about our surroundings in landscape architecture, thermodynamics, the chaos theory, literature and Romanticism.

Colonial Players not only has brought Stoppard's play to its theater, but also has helped to clarify it. A week before opening Arcadia, the company scheduled a preperformance round- table discussion by four panelists: a historian, mathematician, landscape architect and the play's director. And at the box office window, theatergoers can obtain an "Audience Primer" containing terms and historical information used in Stoppard's play.

In the "Audience Primer," Arcadia is defined as an isolated region of ancient Greece that now refers to an imaginary paradise. What seems paradise to some may be others' hell, with scenes shifting between centuries and topics ranging from scholarly theory to poetry and sex.

Director Craig Allen Mummey largely succeeds in turning all of the diverse elements into stimulating theater. He has assembled a noteworthy cast with a quintet of excellent leading actors who are totally convincing in two eras - 1809 and today. Time is traversed easily in seamless scene changes. The sparse set functions well with its classically elegant sturdy table the center for most action.

In the first scene, the audience meets Stoppard's 19th- century heroine in 13-year-old Lady Thomasina Coverly, a mathematical prodigy who posits the Second Law of Thermodynamics, declaring that loss of heat will cause the eventual death of the universe.

Stoppard has given us in young Thomasina a heroine brilliant in science and naive in love, who challenges her tutor's concepts of physics while accepting his definition of "carnal embrace" as "hugging a meat carcass." Delivering reams of difficult dialogue in an acceptable English accent, Baltimore School for the Arts junior Genna Davidson creates a haunting portrait of Thomasina.

In the role of her tutor Septimus Hodge, Pat Reynolds also is required to deliver a huge amount of dialogue, both profane and profound. Reynolds gives his Hodge more than a touch of arrogance, delighting in dazzling his audience with his vast knowledge.

Other notable 19th-century inhabitants include Lady Croom, skillfully played by Janet Luby, and her cuckold husband Ezra Chater, humorously played by Danny Brooks.

Contemporaries now at Arcadia and involved in the lives of their predecessors at the estate are author Hannah Jarvis, who is researching for her book on a hermit who once lived there, and Valentine Coverly, a descendant, who has opened his ancestral home to Jarvis and to Bernard Nightingale, a university don determined to prove that Lord Byron visited the Coverly family and killed minor poet Ezra Chater in a duel.

Heather Quinn is sufficiently bright, brittle and coolly clever to convey the essence of Hannah Jarvis. As witty, charming and exasperating Bernard Nightingale, Richard McGraw creates a familiar posturing academic to add to his list of memorable Colonial Players performances.

Don Kammann makes a memorable Colonial Players debut, bringing sympathetic computer scientist and biologist Valentine Coverly to warm life. As Chloe Coverly, Lory Foster brings some much needed joy and warmth to the production.

Colonial's current production will hardly appeal to the casual theatergoer in search of easy laughs and light entertainment, but it will offer much to those seeking intellectual stimulation that remains long after the play ends.

Arcadia continues on weekends through Nov. 16.

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