Valdosta Daily Times


February 18, 2014

'Arcadia:' VSU Theatre juggles time and truth

VALDOSTA — In playwright Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” a young woman named Thomasina is ahead of her time in mathematics — a significant phenomenon given it’s the early 1800s in this household which has the honor of playing host to Lord Byron. Meanwhile, in the present, two scholars visit this same house; while researching a mysterious moment in Byron’s life, they slowly unravel the life of a young 19th century girl named Thomasina.

Confused? Don’t be. Time and truth can confound us all, but Stoppard seeks to make sense of the conundrum of then and now with Valdosta State University Theatre & Dance’s latest production opening this week.

On a metaphysical level, “Arcadia” is as much a comedy as a farce with too many doors and windows for entrances and exits; however, the doors in this play revolve around the concepts of time and place.

“Yes, this can definitely be thought of as a ‘thinking person’s comedy,’ though I wouldn’t say you have to be an intellectual to laugh at the play,” says Dr. Jimmy Bickerstaff, the show’s director. Stoppard “has several layers of jokes here, some trivial, some sexual, and some caught up in more esoteric references like chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics, but by no means does everyone have to get everything. That’s part of the fun.”

Bickerstaff says Stoppard’s interest in science and philosophy are morphed “into a kind of ironic detective novel where truth really depends on motive and point of view as often as direct experience. The audience gets the enjoyment of actually seeing the events of the past that the characters in the present are trying to understand. As his character Septimus says, the ‘procession’ of human history ‘is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.’ As a result, what we learn along the way has the potential to change our lives — even when we don’t understand them. In the same way, you don’t have to understand the play to enjoy it.”

To ensure the audience does not become confused between the volleys back and forth from time to time, Bickerstaff includes a timeline with the scenes in the show’s program, “though I think we do a pretty good job of keeping everything clear and the characters are easily identifiable.”

To keep things straight on the set, and to give a student an opportunity to have a hand in directing a main season VSU production, Bickerstaff shared directing duties with senior Dennis May. Bickerstaff served as primary director for the 1800s cast while May directed the modern cast.

“Then we put them together,” Bickerstaff says. “Part of the challenge — and the fun for us — was creating a unified production out of two separate casts, two separate styles of acting, and two separate stories that intertwine and eventually, in the last scene of the play, merge into the same space on stage with two separate groups of characters that are not aware of each other.”

“‘Arcadia’ weaves philosophy, science, history and literature into a drama,” says Kara Harrison, show dramaturge. “Yet it might also be considered a comedy about the consequences of taking poetry and science too seriously. The characters primarily seek three different sorts of knowledge: mathematical knowledge, historical knowledge, and sexual knowledge. Information that is underestimated in one generation is greatly esteemed in the next.”

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