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Our Place in the Universe:

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by Tom Stoppard
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
Mainstage Theatre
3/3-6, 8 p.m. and 2 p.m., Sun.
Tickets: $10-$12

LOVE AND INTELLECT: ‘Arcadia’ features sex and intellectualism, and stars UNCW student actors Maria Katsadouros and Jacob Keohane. Courtesy photo.

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Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ is simultaneously obvious and complex. It moves between the early 19th century at an English country estate to the present day, where academics research the century-before happenings.

In 1809 we meet Thomasina Coverly (Maria Katsadouros), a blossoming math prodigy at a time when girls’ education prepared them with a little French for conversation, a little Latin, basic math for household accounts, drawing and music for finishing. Her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Jacob Keohane), has his hands full not only with his precocious young pupil but also juggling his active love life at Sidley Park, the country estate of the Coverly family. Like his old-school chum, Lord Byron (who comes to visit), Septimus has a penchant for sexual entanglements. This leads to problems with the would-be poet-husband of one of the house guests, Ezra Chater (Rylan Morsbach) and Lady Croom (Lindsay Wright), his employer and Thomasina‘s mother.

In the present day, Hannah Jarvis (Sarah Burke) and Bernard Nightingale (Charles Johnston) are academics trying to piece together proof to substantiate their theories about the events surrounding those fateful few years at Sidley Park. The action moves back and forth between the two time periods.

UNCW has a really great crop of actors this year; they relate so well to each other on stage. One of the hardest things to learn to do well as an actor is to actually listen and deeply respond—especially night after night of the same show. Dr. Vincent and the faculty at UNCW have succeeded in helping this group learn to do that. Consequently, watching this cast interact is captivating They realize the show is a com-tragedy, in the sense that the two main characters die, one literally and the other symbolically, at the end of the script. But great comedic mishap and multiple layers of humor and innuendo develop to the denouement. Stoppard is a witty dramatist, even his darkest works, like “Squaring the Circle” or “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” have puny, clever comedic dialogue, because life is both laughter and tears.

Katsadouros’ strength as Thomasina is her gay unconcern for the foolery around her. It is obvious to her what she sees in math and science, and that others don’t see it so easily is to be expected. She is surrounded by fools and that is all there is to it—except for Septimus, he is not a fool. Jacob Keohane, who portrays Septimus Hodge, has talent for understatement and allusion. His complicated and evolving relationship with Thomasina unfolds without feeling forced. Speaking with Ezra Chater and Captain Brice (Rylan Morsbach and Eddie Ledford), his response to their outrage creates a truly funny and believable confrontation between outraged gentlemen. Morsbach and Ledford are far too engaging on stage. Entering in outrage, then exiting in fear and frustration, they leave the audience in. Their well-spoken tweedles bumble around each other and everyone else; they live in a mutual, believable fictitious world.

Nick Kempton as Jellaby the butler gives truly memorable curtain speeches. He starts the evening off with the perfect caricature of a stone-faced, deadpan butler and has the audience laughing in minutes. He sets the tone for a wonderful evening and carried it through to the end.

The restrained yet sexually charged subtext of the interactions between its 19th century characters are contrasted with the overt, brash dialogue of the present-day players. Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are brutal with each other. No refined banter between these two—they go for the jugular and let the bodies fall where they may. The bodies unfortunately take the shape of Chloe (Carrie Malabre) and Valentine Coverly (Owen Hickle-Edwards), descendants of the Coverly family who are being studied by the academics. Johnston is completely despicable as Nightingale, but the audience cannot help but laugh at him. He is dead-on in his creation of a pompous, oblivious academic. Jarvis’ barely restrained passion bursts at the seams of all her interactions, even with Chloe. Hickle-Edwards is the perfect choice to play Valentine Coverly; he is patient, funny, determined and concerned. On stage, the present is a more familiar version of the Coverlys of the 1800’s.

Technically, the show seems simple: There is only one set, and there are no significant scene changes with major pieces coming on or off stage, not even a curtain to move. However, with secret passages and false doors, the set reveals unexpected, multiple layers of the seen and unseen. It is a lovely visual pun to underscore Stoppard’s multilayer script. During the course of the show, the view through the French doors transforms to help the audience follow discussions of higher mathematics, science and, ultimately, the universe. This all combines to create what a set should be: a working tool for the actors and a visual guide for the audience.

Perhaps best known for “Rosencrantz and Guildersten Are Dead,” Tom Stoppard is arguably one of our greatest living playwrights. With a career that spans almost five decades and includes the scripts of “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet,” he has made a name for himself as a writer for intellectuals, speaking to the intersection of knowledge and human frustration. “Arcadia” embodies many of his favorite elements: time travel and the merging of the two time periods on stage, classical allusions, modern-day academics misinterpreting the past (his play “India Ink,” also written in the 1990s, returns to this theme), science and spirituality, romanticism and human emotion, the imbalance of power, and a world unprepared to recognize genius where it emerges—in this case 150 years too early, in the form of a teenage girl. Though he is a playwright of great themes and ideas, he has an ear for dialogue that actors love and his audiences can’t get enough of. In “Arcadia” he creates an accessible medium for a conversation about our attempts to explain our universe and our perception of our place in it. That, is the ultimate aim of art.

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