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There is an expectation when one sees a play that they will be taken on a journey. Audiences want to get lost in a story line, lose all sense of time enjoy the escapism. When an audience is reminded that they are watching a play, however, and that play goes on seemingly for ages, it ceases to become escapism and becomes a classroom lecture. “Arcadia” is just such a play. Written by Tom Stoppard, it is not an easy play to describe in brief. It confusedly intertwines the past and present with multiple story lines following intellectual theories that verge on the point of being arrogant and difficult to grasp in a play like setting.

 

The play bounces between the early 1800's and the present day in a stately manor in England. At the core of play, the present day is trying to uncover what took place at the manor in the 1800's. In the past, a gifted 13-year-old girl, Thomasina, delves into deep theoretical analysis of higher mathematics and physics, jotting down her theories and equations, unknowingly for the future to see. Paralleling that story line is her tutor, Septimus, who cheats with the wife of a visiting poet while pinning for the master of the manor’s wife, and who was somehow-possibly-connected to the famous Romantic poet, Byron. Flash forward to the present day where an academic hopes to uncover if the tutor, Septimus, might have had some involvement with the death of that visiting poet, and that his possible connection to Byron might mean that Byron was involved in this death as well. But wait! There’s more! Paralleling that story line in the present day, one of the family members of the estate combs through old hunting logs and notes to see that the young girl, Thomasina might have been a genius on the brink of an intellectual breakthrough, and seeks to dive deeply into her notes to potentially uncover her genius and the work during her young and short life.

 

Underneath all of these story lines is the running theme of “Arcadia,” named for a pair of 17th century paintings that picture shepherds around a tomb with the words “Et in Arcadia ego” on it. The incorrect Latin phrase translates to “Here I am in Arcadia” but it’s more accurate translation is “Even in Arcadia, here I am” the “I” being death. Stoppard is quoted by his biographer as saying he “wanted the presence of death in the title.” Spoiler alert, death does happen and is one of the core subplots, a sort of “who-done-it,” but it is just another element to this complicated play. Another reach for the “intellectual stimulation.”

 

Cliff notes would have a tough time summarizing this play. The play has witty, smart, and biting dialogue, well delivered by an articulate and charismatic cast. But look away, or miss a line and you might miss an introduction to a key character, or their relation to the other characters, or their purpose of being in the play at all. If not for the clothing change and syntax you might get lost in which time period you are in. The audience is obligated to follow along with every line and process all the information rapidly in order to keep pace with this play. With a run time of 2 hour 55 minute and only a brief 15 minute intermission that is a tall order for an audience, and even tougher story to convey for the actors. But the new multi-million dollar Writer’s Theater wants just that, for the audience and actors to meet as one, to journey together and become fully immersed with the story. The immaculate theater is nestled in the cozy tree lined streets of downtown Glencoe, and will be a wonderful location for future high-quality theatrical productions on the North Shore.

 

Overall, “Arcadia” would be better as a novel, where a reader can pause to examine the characters, read internal monologues and gain an understanding of the characters’ motivations and thoughts. It would be easier to follow the time changes and carefully consider the many complex theories being presented and explored. I think the length of such a book would rival a Tolstoy novel, though nothing would be lost to the wings. A play that requires such rapt and intense concentration from an audience for such a long duration makes it unapproachable to someone looking to get lost in a story. Watching “Arcadia” audiences do get lost, but for all the wrong reasons. “Arcadia” runs through May 1st. Tickets are available at http://www.writerstheatre.org.

 

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