A play for all eras

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a play of words and ideas. This is all very well sitting in a chair with a book in hand, but to lift those words off the page and put them in the mouths of real people is another challenge altogether. The play is a combination of genius and sex, two ideas that drift together, apart, and back together for the duration of the play. In a way, it’s perfect material for U of T students looking for the balance between academia and fun in their own lives.

Arcadia takes place in two eras: that of Septimus Hodge (Stuart Hefford) and Thomasina Coverly (Olivia Orton) in the early 1800s, and the present day, in which we follow Hannah (Roxhanne Norman) and Bernard (Tom Ketchum) as they research the people who lived 180 years ago. The setting is the same throughout: a period room with a couch and a table covered in books and papers. Some of the strongest moments are those in which the two periods overlap; a present-day character will, for instance, pour tea from a teapot first requested by someone from 1800s.

The props required for this sort of action are very specific. Everything from huge volumes of gaming records, notebooks, sketchbooks, letters, collected poetry, and even a pet tortoise clutter the world these characters inhabit. And the props, too, are what make the world inhabitable.

Directed by Owen Fawcett, the UTM Drama Club’s production of Arcadia is incredibly well cast. The character of Thomasina, for instance, undergoes a fairly dramatic change throughout the play. She grows from a troublemaking and curious but brilliant 13-year-old to an equally brilliant but newly aware young woman. Orton makes this journey without losing the playfulness of the younger Thomasina, keeping her centre intact while her maturity changes. Norman portrays Hannah with equal dexterity, clearly articulating all her excitement, anger, and vicious sarcasm.

The cast works well as an ensemble, creating not characters but human beings. They do this not through their lines but their reactions, each roll of the eyes or private giggle making them real. It is precisely because we all react like this every day that it is so fundamental to the development of relationships not only between the characters, but also between the cast and the audience.

My favourite moments are those in which the contemporary and the Victorian coexist without acknowledging or refuting each other. Since both time periods are seen in the same location and the props and set overlap, so does the action. One scene has Valentine, Hannah, Septimus, and Thomasina onstage together. Although neither pair acknowledges the presence of the other, there are moments of near-magic when they come close to touching but do not, or when one character looks straight at another without seeing them. This type of interaction is the realization of Stoppard’s desire to show just how close the past and present are. The actors and director play a huge part in this, though; it is up to them to convey what they can see and whom they can hear.

The UTMDC has chosen to tackle a difficult but engaging play, and they do so with great success. The cast and directorial team have lent Arcadia the energy it requires in order to keep from getting bogged down in a lot of ideas and relatively little action.

Arcadia runs in the MiST Theatre from February 7 to 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $15 for adults, and $5 for Drama Club members.