Arcadia

The GAMM theater in Pawtucket, a jewel of a regional acting group, tries and usually succeeds at daring productions. The theater’s size (perhaps 150 seats) creates an intimacy. Our front row-center subscription often creates the illusion that we’re in the play.

My son is an equity actor who now heads an acting school in LA, his wife is an actor, and I’ve served in the past on two theater boards (including GAMM). My wife and I are regulars on Broadway (we DID get tickets to Hamilton pre-Tonys). That’s for frame of reference.

It seems to me that unlike my corporate clients who focus on the customer, and major Broadway houses and touring companies that seek a handsome return for the investors, regional theater becomes enamored with what it’s capable of doing. That’s why we see way too much Shakespeare, to the extent, for variation, it’s done in modern times, with combat boots, underwater, and on the moon. We all know how it ends, but the theater group is trying to prove its chops. It’s about the execution, not the audience.

Mix in the fact that there are only so many playwrights who have written so many plays, that unless you turn to the unknown or experimental, there is a finite amount of work to choose from. And so we have Arcadia, a work by the brilliant Tom Stoppard (Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love) that, beyond confusing, and beyond long (two hours plus), highlights terrific actors’ abilities but doesn’t emotionally move the audience. Despite Fred Sullivan’s usually brisk direction, it’s tough to care about anyone on stage beyond Thomasina. I’ll get to her in a moment.

Stoppard uses Arcadia to showcase his erudition, from the notion of Lord Byron killing an obscure poet to a character based on Ada Lovelace, the historical, unheralded mathematical savant, from Fermat’s Last Theorem to academic rivalries. It’s done with a very British accent, and done two centuries apart, from 1809 to the end of the 20th Century, with alternating time periods later quite mixed to no good effect on stage.

The cast at GAMM is outstanding, no less this time. Jeff Church as Septimus Hodge is natural and engrossing, and Grace Viveiros as Thomasina, the math genius who also stumbles upon definitions for “carnal embrace,” steals the show. I would call her a “pre-ingénue.” (She’s a high school senior in reality.) Tony Estrella, the artistic director of the theater, is at his usual magnificent best as Bernard Nightingale, the pretentious academic who thinks he’s nailed Byron as the killer until his theory becomes unglued.

The actors demonstrate they can handle this often ribald, fast, confusing material. But the audience is a different matter. A few people left at intermission, two walked out literally across the stage during the first act, and I heard others talking about the confusion and hard-to-follow plot during the break. (If we ever left our seats in the first row it would be like two missing front teeth in a smile.) The obligatory standing ovation was for the great talent and energy of the cast, proving they can do a difficult play, but not for delighting the audience.

There is a toxic sequence in the play were Estrella’s character damns what’s around him—other people’s best efforts—by calling it trivial. The word comes back to haunt him. And it symbolizes this particular material.

© Alan Weiss 2016


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