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Arcadia
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
October 1, 2016

Michael Cassidy Flynn Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Michael Cassidy Flynn
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

I had never seen or read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia before seeing this latest staging at West End Players Guild. Now, I think I have a new play to add to my list of favorites. Not knowing exactly what to expect when I sat down to watch it, I was soon impressed with the brilliance of the writing, which is well showcased in the remarkable staging at WEPG.

This play is, simply put, a masterpiece of contemporary theatre. It’s so intricately plotted and the characters are well-drawn and believable. There are so many little clues to the various mysteries that unfold here, and that’s another great aspect of this play. There’s more than one answer to find.  Cleverly, the play takes place at the same English country estate in two different time periods–the present day and the early 19th Century.  We’re first introduced to the 19th Century characters including young Thomasina Coverly (Kristin Rion), the daughter of the aristocratic family that owns the estate, and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Michael Cassidy Flynn), a scholarly and somewhat romantically adventurous young man who, we eventually find out, is an old school friend of Lord Byron’s. We also meet Thomasina’s mother, the jaded aristocrat Lady Croom (Ann Marie Mohr) and her brother, Captain Brice of the Royal Navy (Anthony Wininger), as well as the family’s enthusiastic landscaper Richard Noakes (Carl Overly, Jr.), who has grand plans for redesigning the grounds of the estate. There’s also an insecure, mediocre poet, Ezra Chater (Andrew Kuhlman) who has several complaints against Septimus regarding Chater’s poetry and his wife. We spend a good deal of time in this era until we’re eventually transported to modern times, in which the ancestors of the Coverly family still own and live on the estate, including the outgoing Chloe Coverly (Erin Renee Roberts), her quiet brother Gus (Mason Hunt), and studious brother Valentine Coverly (Jaz Tucker), who is working on mathematical equations concerning the local grouse population. Another scholar has also arrived to stay with the family, English literature specialist Hannah Jarvis (Nicole Angeli), whom Valentine refers to as his “fiancee” although their relationship doesn’t seem as clearly defined on her side. Hannah’s there to work on another scholarly project–finding out the identity of a hermit who lived on the grounds sometime after the time period featured in the first part of the play.  Another scholar, the egotistical Bernard Nightingale (John Wolbers), also arrives working on yet another project involving Lord Byron’s connection with the estate, and as the modern day characters interact and do their research, the action frequently switches back to the 19th Century plot, where we learn exactly how accurate the present-day scholars’ research turns out to be. It’s a gradual process, and I’m realizing now that my description my make this all sound hopelessly dry, but it isn’t in the least. The characters are so richly drawn and the events play out in surprising and fascinating ways, dealing with important issues concerning the importance of integrity in scholarship, the process of scientific discovery, the ignoring of the roles of brilliant women in history, and more.  This is a very dense but extremely well plotted and thoughtful play, and West End’s production is a superb rendition of this remarkable script.

Director Ellie Schwetye has staged this play in a lucid, dynamic way that makes everything the audience needs to know readily apparent, although it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open because there’s a whole lot going on. The set is static throughout, with few changes to the props between the time periods. Most of what is there, is there in both eras, suggesting more of a link between the two stories. All the little clues that are dropped throughout are there for the noticing, and the period details are very well-realized, as well. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes outfit the characters with excellent detail, from the character-appropriate modern costumes to the vibrant 19th Century attire. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Benjamin Lewis and strong sound design by Schwetye.

Even with such a wonderful script, a play like this requires a first-rate cast, and this production has that. Led by the strong, earnest performances of Flynn as Septimus and Angeli as Hannah, this cast doesn’t have a weak link. Other standouts include Wolbers in a lively performance as the pompous Bernard, Rion in a winning turn as the inquisitive, ahead-of-her-time Thomasina, Mohr as the somewhat imperious Lady Croom, Kuhlman as the defensive Chater, Overly as the energetic Noakes, and Hunt in a dual role as the silent Gus and his more gregarious ancestor, Augustus Coverly. Everyone is excellent, however, no matter the size of the role, and the ensemble chemistry–extremely important in a show like this–is superb.

Arcadia is one of those plays that makes me want to buy the script. As presented at West End Players Guild, the excellent words are brought to glorious, fascinating life. It’s a great show, and it’s only playing for one more weekend. Go see it if you can.

Nicole Angeli, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Mason Hunt, Kristin Rion, Jaz Tucker Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Nicole Angeli, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Mason Hunt, Kristin Rion, Jaz Tucker
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Arcadia at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 9, 2016. 

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