Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 2, 2009


New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through August 8, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is an example of masterful playwrighting, "...perhaps the greatest play of its time," according to Johann Hari's recent review in London's The Independent. Its construction - back and forth between 1809 and 1989, in the same stunning room, handling the same artifacts, carrying forward the brilliant hypotheses that tripped off the tongue of a 13-year-old girl almost a century before -- challenged the dexterity and layered nimbleness of Stoppard's talent. Stoppard won.

Director Sam Rush imbues the baker's dozen cast with a sense of purpose: they know their stuff and how to flaunt it. In a major role as the precocious Thomasina, young Shelby Leshine beguiles. As her tutor, Septimus Hodge, David Mason's shaded performance reveals the dedicated teacher, the opportunistic seducer, and a deft bamboozler. Cate Damon as the starchy historian, Hannah, deftly deflects the pompous Bernard Nightingale (Keith Langsdale, a scene-stealer whose enthusiasm amazes). Paul Melendy (Valentine Coverly) is a likeable smartypants, modulated in 1809, nerdy in 1989.

The timeless beauty of the setting soothes. Jacquelyn Marolt's design borrows its graceful curved walls from the Greek; the open circle mimics the play's circumlocution. Grounding the free-flowing action is a parquet floor of mellow woods, a large ten-sided mahogany table where yesteryear's tutor and pupil pursue learning, and where modern academic sleuths explore what really happened within this English country home.

What a labyrinth of theorems dominate conversations, sometimes fleetingly - chaos, algorithms, physics - as well as philosophical discussions; i.e., English literature, landscaping, love, death. No wonder that of all the perplexed remarks overheard at intermission, this one captured the essence: "I can't keep up: my head is spinning!" The easiest remedy is to stop trying to understand every line. Instead, let the flavors of the play - its moments of lightheartedness, perplexity, glee, repudiation, tolerance, intellectual stimulation, and so much more - lumber not like stone weights but dance like sugar plums in your head. Another solution is to neutralize any confusion by seeing "Arcadia" again.