by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 23, 2018

L-R foreground: Brendan Hutt, Cameron Feagin, Scot West. L-R: background: Michael Brigance, Heather Smith in "Arcadia."
L-R foreground: Brendan Hutt, Cameron Feagin, Scot West. L-R: background: Michael Brigance, Heather Smith in "Arcadia."  (Source:Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography)

To open its 13th season, Promethean Theatre Ensemble (PTE) mounts an absolutely masterful production of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia." As it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, the play's biting humor, intelligence and its unapologetically hopeful tone, even in the face of the eventual heat death of the universe, keep its place among the greatest plays of the second half of the 20th century absolutely secure.

In literal terms the action skips between life in the same English country manor house at the beginning of the 19th century and the trailing edge of the 20th. In the past, Thomasina Coverly's brilliant mind snatches at insights far beyond the knowledge of her time, and she pins them to the pages of notebook like butterflies for a toiling mathematician two hundred years in the future. In the present, Hannah Jarvis's meticulous insistence on intellectual rigor lays bare the raw emotions driving the inhabitants of Sibley Park. Beneath the surface, though, each character is at once timeless irrevocably anchored to their own time, just as each is both an archetype and a complex, compelling individual.

Despite the three-hour running time (including intermission) and single setting, this dynamic production's pacing is some kind of miracle. Director Ted Hoerl guides his cast with a sure hand through Stoppard's dense, demanding, brain-spankingly smart dialogue. It's impossible to keep up, let alone catch everything, much of the time—and it's meant to be—but the attention to each moment and every interaction allows the audience to let the whole of these stories and their fundamental truths wash over them. It's a play that definitely bears seeing (and tackling) over and over, yet the self-contained performance is utterly satisfying.

Kevin Hagan's set facilitates both the deep dive and surrendering to the wave by literally encircling every soul in the theater. We see only the study of Sibley Park, dominated by a hexagonal table that's run through with the play's axis mundi. Nine spindly columns arrayed at clock-number intervals around the cast suggest their missing counterparts curving behind the audience and completing the circle.

The stage floor's alternating glossy and matte squares suggest the intellectual, sexual and familial chess moves the characters are engaged in at every second, and the light, airy vertical divisions of the upstage wall suggest the manor house's windows looking out on the sweeping expanse of the grounds' carefully cultivated, entirely manufactured wilderness. Hagan's lighting design also gracefully transports the characters and audience from crowded, raucous arguments in the light of day to intimate moments of connection and discovery by lamplight, keeping us snugly, timelessly wrapped all the while.

Carrie Campana's costumes artfully tie the two time periods together and comment on the relationships within and across contemporary groups by playing with color schemes. In the present, Hannah and Bernard's Campana renders contentious relationship visual by using the same colors for both, but inverting the main an accent colors for each character. The big-hearted, if too impressionable Chloe's ensemble borrows a shade or two from virtually every other character's wardrobe, leaving her own a bright, empathetic mishmash that reflects chaos of her logic and loyalties.

Finally, Sebby Woldt's sound design swells and fades to not quite nothing as forces as sweeping and impersonal as history, as intimate as a love song intrude on the lives and work of these characters. The distinct heartbeats of the two waltzes at the play end were profound not only in their stand-alone beauty, but in the way they bring the fragmented musical themes that occasionally surface throughout to the foreground for that last, aching moment.

The entire PET cast gives joyous life to the characters in all their serious, petty, rational, romantic, kind, wise, intuitive and cutting glory, and the effortless collaboration among the performers speaks to Hoerl's smart, skillful direction. Everyone involved seems to love the play, which is vital.

As Thomasina, Meghann Tabor is as engaging and believable in the moments when she mourns the lost wisdom of the ancients as she is in her lamentations that no one has taught her to dance. As her tutor, Septimus Hodge, Chris Woolsey does credit to every bit of complexity Stoppard has etched into the surface of a character that is usually cobbled together out of tropes. His respect and true regard for Thomasina, all within the believable confines of their relative roles, provide are a welcome counterbalance for the hilarity (which he plays skillfully) with Chater the lackluster poet, just as they lend real, human stakes to his barely there romantic moments with Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom.

In this role, Megan DeLay has the luxury of playing the comedy broadly. Her sweeping Lady-of-the-Manor delivery not only lands the humor perfectly, it draws the boundaries and battle lines for the men and women under roof, and it allows her quieter, more vulnerable moments to shine all the more brightly.

In the present, Cameron Feagin embraces the role of the hyper-focused, absent-minded researcher, but like Woolsey, she's well aware that Hannah Jarvis's stereotypical attributes are a feint on Stoppard's part. In moments where another actor might have tried to temper the character's foibles, Feagin digs in, showing the audience that though she's driven by passion for the truth and admiration for those who seek it, she's in no way above petty politics and satisfying academic gotchas.

As such, she and Scot West (Bernard Nightingale) are infinitely more interesting than if they'd been written or played as caricatured opposites of one another. Like Feagin, West doesn't shy away from his character's insufferable elements, but neither does he play Nightingale as simply all flash and no substance. The various ways he tweaks Hannah, and rises to the bait when she tweaks in kind, give us glimpses of romantic, intuitive brand of intelligence defending itself in the age of technology and readily accessed facts. These flashes connect him to Thomasina and Hodge and the warmth of those characters.

Rounding out the merry band of academics is Brendan Hutt as Valentine and Valentine, the resident gentleman scholar who is obsessed with the complexity of grouse to the point of Byronic despair. Hutt and Feagin, in particular, engage beautifully with one another, giving the play yet another intriguing male—female dynamic that never ventures anywhere near trite near-miss romantic plots. His performance is also notable for the way he conveys Valentine's more privileged social position by depicting the character as oblivious to it.

In more purely comic roles, Nicole Hand capably Rosencrantz and Guildensterns her way through the role of Noakes, the landscape architect tasked with manufacturing wilderness as Regency England knew it to be. In a role that consists almost entirely of showing up only to be dismissed, Hand conveys an absurd self-importance that lends further humanity to the characters closer to the center of this universe.

As Chater, the poet-cum-naturalist, Michael Reyes neatly turns on a dime, playing the character's unwarranted artistic vanity as capably as his fierce, if intermittent, marital jealousy. Chris Smith's Brice works well with Reyes in raising the possibility that the whole of what the audience sees in "Arcadia" is, in fact, the story of their rivalry—and Lord Byron's role in it—from the vantage point of minor characters.

Heather Kae Smith and Michael Brigance make contributions here that are difficult to characterize neatly. Superficially, they both fit under comic relief. Chloe is the privileged present-day daughter of Sibley Park who dabbles in big ideas while mooning over Bernard. However, the eloquent fury she turns on the other characters as they're casually cruel to one another certainly elevates the character above this, and it's to the actor's credit that Chloe is legible as the Thomasina that might have been in an age with little time for deep thinking.

As Gus/Augustus, Brigance faces the dual challenges of absolute silence in the present and what could be vapid brattiness in the past. Most of the play elapses with Gus's passion for Hannah, as well as his reactions to the arguments and intrigues unfolding around him, conveyed through offhand dialogue from others and the actor's evocative body language and facial expressions.

By the time Augustus speaks in the past, it's both a relief and an utter affront to find the character seems to exist only to throw Thomasina's depth and brilliance into sharp relief. True to the emotional core of the play, though, Brigance is anchored in the Romantic/Regency genre and utterly timeless. Gus is Augustus, the eighth, just as Septimus is the seventh, and we haven't so much come full circle as we have been full circle all along.

"Arcadia" runs through December 16 at the Greenhouse Theater Center's Upstairs Studio, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. For tickets, visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.