The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Theatre Review: Arcadia

Thomasina Coverly and her tutor, Septimus Hodge
Thomasina Coverly and her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Courtesy of UI Theatre Department.

Written by Tom Stoppard in 1993 and directed by Ariel Francoeur, Arcadia is set in the early 19th century as well as “modern-day” – 1993 in the first production. The play switches perspectives every scene, signalling the time switch by either playing classical piano music or modern British pop music.

The play revolves around the inhabitants of a house in the UK in both time periods with the modern group studying the passions and scandals of the historic group. As the play progresses, the time periods begin to bleed together and characters from both periods end up in the house at the same moment; as a rule, each character is only aware of the characters that are in the same time period as themselves. This provided a really interesting scene dynamic as the dialogue and blocking flowed seamlessly together. By the end, the audience was left with a sort of cliffhanger in the form of dramatic irony; the audience knew what happened after the lights went down, but the characters were blissfully unaware.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 44 minutes, the pace of Arcadia  was a godsend. For the most part. the plot didn’t drag at all. I was surprised when intermission came and I realized an hour and a half had passed. The second half didn’t fly by so quickly, but it was good enough to keep me in my seat.

Speaking of the second half, there was a beautifully choreographed waltz-scene that completely stole my heart. Two characters from the 1800s and two characters from the “present” waltz around on stage, never encountering the other couple but always spinning perfectly around each other. The space on the set was used well and liberally, and there is no question about the talent of the actors and choreographers who worked on this dance.

On the subject of the space and major talent – the set was beautiful. The only set was a large sitting room with a long table, a chandelier, and large windows and doors to the garden, but I was in love with it. I was ready to move in right then and there. Major props to the set designers and anyone else in the crew that worked on the set.

Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale attempt to connect clues. Courtesy of UI Theatre Department.
Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale attempt to connect clues. Courtesy of UI Theatre Department.

Another great feature of the show was the transition music. The classical music was nice; it wasn’t laughably old, but it also set the mood and clearly indicated where and when the next scene would be taking place. The modern British pop had the same effect, but was – in my opinion – a lot more fun to listen to. I was especially pleased when  Kate Nash came on, but that’s probably due to a) I enjoy Kate Nash as an artist and b) I was relieved to finally recognize a track that was being played between scenes. Overall, the music was a great addition and did its job as a transition method.

As much as I appreciated the show, I wasn’t crazy about a couple of things.

For me, the main downfall was the dialects. This play takes place in the UK so, obviously, all of the characters were speaking in British accents. Here’s my problem: the accents were either overdone, incomprehensible, or all together distracting. I had a really  hard time following the dialogue – and therefore, the plot – because I was struggling to understand what many of the actors were saying. When I could hear them, a lot of what I heard was extremely overdone. This was especially true of the actors portraying characters living in the 1800s. There was too much pomp, too much gusto, and way too much emphasis. I was unable to take anything seriously because all I could think was that I was at a Harry Potter reenactment and everyone had learned a different accent.

The one character I was really impressed with was Lady Croom. As soon as she walked onstage there was no doubt about it; she owned the space. And she does; in the play, Lady Croom basically “rules” over the estate and has a lot of power and influence over the other characters. However, just because this is what the character is supposed to do, it doesn’t mean the actor will portray it. But perfectly portrayed it was, and with a controlled accent to boot.

The aforementioned franchises, united in one lovely picture. Courtesy of
The aforementioned franchises, united in one lovely picture. Courtesy of

Overall, the show was enjoyable. I didn’t really like sitting in a theater for nearly three hours, but after the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Hunger Games franchises, you begin to get used to it. That being said, there wasn’t nearly enough action for me to be on the edge of my seat for those two hours and forty-four minutes. However, it was well paced for a play. While I wish the dialects had been better done/less distracting, I applaud the cast and crew for a well done performance.

To keep up with the UI Theatre Department and find tickets and showtimes, visit their website.