Last week I saw the Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. I love this play. I've seen it before, and read it before. It was the main stage play at UPS when I was abroad and I always felt like I missed out on not getting to see it, or be involved with it.
So when I saw way back in the fall that it was a part of Folger's season I knew I had to go. I was even willing to go by myself. But I got my housemate, Rachel, and my coworker and partner in crime, Jalaine, to come with me. Because I orchestrated the trip, I felt a certain pressure for them to enjoy the play. I mean, clearly it wouldn't be my fault if the production wasn't good, or if they didn't enjoy it. But I found myself watching them a little during the first few scenes. Quickly it was clear they were both really enjoying it, so I could relax.
The Folger Theatre calls this part of their grounds "the Elizabethan Theatre," but I feel that its really a reconstruction of Shakespeare's theatre, the Globe. Our (very inexpensive) seats were on the balcony on the right side. At times I had to lean either forward or backward to see well, and there were a few times the action happened almost under us, but otherwise the view was very good. Our tickets were also very reasonably prices, and I should mention, that the play is still in previews. However, I saw very little that needs to improve, other than occasional and very slight stumbling over lines. But that can happen at any point really.
I think Arcadia is a fascinating show. First of all I really enjoy Tom Stoppard as a playwright. He gets dialog in a way all his own. His plays are incredibly pithy, wordy and intellectual. Yet he straddles the right side of pretentiousness through the warm and well developed characters who deliver his incredible dialog.
Arcadia is an amazing piece of theatre. It takes place in a beautiful English house, centered around the different generations of the same family, in 1809 and 1811, and in present time. Scenes alternate back and forth expeditiously and easily through the centuries. It is both a modern and a period play, which is not an easy tack. In fact, I cannot think of any other play that does that. This culminates in the most mind blowing and amazing theatrical trick ever. In the last scene the past and present are on stage simultaneously. This is accomplished through very clever staging, while both scenes unfold they are not aware of the others presence, like you you reach in and lift one scene out and the action would continue.
This works so well because it is not a trick. It is the play. The characters in the present become obsessed with discovering a particular event in the past. They grope blindly (but intelligently) toward the truth. And last night the brilliance of the play struck me when characters in the present kept exclaiming "I wasn't there." They can't know exactly what happened in the past, as much as they try. They rely on letters, and game books and logs of the garden to discover the past. However, we the audience ARE there. We get to see both. We know exactly what happens in past and get to feel like a reader of a mystery novel where we already know the ending. However, that analogy isn't completely apt. Its more like a puzzle where the audience hold some of the pieces separate. The characters spend the play looking for the answers and we get to find them just a few steps ahead.
This play is a great ensemble piece. There are a quite a few actors, but even more interestingly there are quite a few characters that are much discussed but never seen on stage. The husband in the past, the mother in the present and Lord Byron, are conspicuously absent from the actual stage to name a few. I think that this was a very interesting ad good decision. Especially a character like Lord Byron actually benefits from being larger than life, unable to grace us with his presence. It keeps him from taking over the play, although he is kept quite busy off stage.
To wrap this up, I have to say that I think that am a little notorious for being a overly gentle theater critic. In my theatre classes, I always had a kind word for every script I read, and every play we saw. Yet its not that I'm undiscerning, I'm just willing to let the small things go completely and enjoy the big picture. However, this play seems to have no small things. I enjoyed every second of it. The ending of Arcadia is one of my all time favorite theatrical moments. The play ends with two waltzes, one in the past and one in the present and ends the play with the perfect mix of melancholy and hope. That perfect feeling of the last moments of the play(I cried) stayed with me on my way home and lingered for the next few days. Which I think ultimately is what good theater does, it stays with you.