Main Street Theater, now held over through June 20
By JOHN DeMERS
Tom Stoppard needs to be stopped – if for no other reason than for making the rest of us feel so dumb. His plays over the years have virtually all been wonderlands of images and ideas, possibilities and puzzles, all set forth less in action than in what Hamlet once dismissed as “words, words, words.” This guy is in love with words. And if you’re not after sitting through something like three hours of talking in Arcadia at Main Street (no fistfights, no sex scenes, no desperate chases) – like I say, if you’re not in love with words by the time this play ends, there’s something wrong with you.
In recent years, Main Street has emerged as a significant force on the Houston theater scene by doing the two things that matter most: filling their seasons with a wide variety of gutsy but still entertaining works and then pulling them off with some of the finest actors in town. If some companies specialize in tap-dance happy musicals – and hey, you know who you are – Main Street specializes in making us think and feel, if possible a little outside the box. Arcadia fits this mold beautifully, being as funny as a sitcom from start to finish but covering subjects that would make the blood drain quickly from any TV comedy producer’s face.
So, as best I can simplify it, there’s this room in an old English manor house with two sets of conversations going on. As the outfits make clear, however, right along with the speech patterns, these conversations are almost 200 years apart in history. Both involve scholarship and literary creativity, the second often delving back to the first in the manner of a mystery novel, yet it quickly becomes clear that workaday human lust has a role in both conversations as well. Some things, the message seems to be, never really change.
As with any Stoppard play, language is king, more than story or set or costume, though all are handled just fine by this present group of Main Street players. The small, intimate and in-the-round setting of the company’s Main Stage works in the show’s favor, setting the audience in the center of conversations that go on and on, and also up any lazy but witty river the playwright considers interesting. There are illuminating discussions of poetry vs. literary criticism, art vs. science, antiquity vs. modernity – the list is pretty much endless. All these regularly scheduled zingers are delivered with confidence, passion and solid British accents by the spirited cast assembled by Main Street artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden. She makes sure that some of the breathless quality that Stoppard brings to his dialogue translates into interest, even into excitement. No small achievement.
In the 1809 sections, Steven Laing sits (for that’s what he mostly does, reading and/or writing in a series of journals) at the center of it all. He’s the tutor of young Thomasina Coverly (beautifully played by Jennifer Gilbert) at the very moment she seems to want to seduce the good-looking, worldly older man more than learn algebra and other disciplines from him. Still, we get the sense that something smart and important is going on, especially anytime Crystal O’Brien is onstage as Lady Croom. There is a distinct and sexual energy between the lady and the tutor, these adults passing through the room embodying in their own talked-about dalliances all that Thomasina longs to discover as she approaches her 17th birthday.
Returned to again and again with a kind of “whodunit” fascination, this scene is set against the same table in the same room in contemporary times, as two sharp-tongued scholars argue over the evidence and the meaning of it all. It’s hard to get any better than the charismatic antagonism of Philip Lehl and Shannon Emerick playing these two – if this were a sitcom, they’d surely end up together. Their battle royal is complicated and deepened by the observations of statistical scientist Valentine Coverly, who now owns the manor, getting a terrific portrayal from Justin Doran. Ivy Castle-Rush throws her two cents into the fray as Valentine’s sister Chloe, not to mention an 1809-style dalliance with the male scholar as his efforts to tame his own personal shrew come to nothing.
Arcadia is a hyper-intelligent and beautifully crafted entertainment, one that walks a deliciously fine line between the drivel all around us and the high-toned profundities we‘re guilted into taking like medicine. Arcadia is neither, and it is both.
Photos by Ric Ornel Productions: (top) Steven Laing and Jennifer Gilbert; (bottom) Philip Lehl and Shannon Emerick