Defiant Theatre

at the Viaduct Theater



at the Viaduct Theater

The two plays at the Viaduct represent diametrically opposed views. Tom Stoppard in Arcadia argues that truth and the past are essentially unknowable and that to search for them is futile while Lee Blessing in Fortinbras asserts that truth is essential and must be told. Arcadia represents the triumph of “the story’s construct of events, right or wrong” while Fortinbras represents the story’s overthrow. Fortinbras suggests that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and Arcadia shrugs that we’re condemned to repeat it no matter what. Blessing’s play is one of redemption, Stoppard’s one of loss. Which point of view is right is a matter of personal sensibility–though perhaps simply saying so gives Stoppard the advantage.

Of course the dichotomy between the two plays isn’t quite so neat. Both show that what appears to be progress isn’t always. They agree that the complete understanding people seek is, in Blessing’s words, “a hoax”; and both recognize that from the standpoint of the individual (Blessing again), “I’m not here to finish [someone else’s] story; they’re there to begin mine.”

At first blush Fortinbras seems like Blessing’s version of a Stoppard play–“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern… Lite,” a jokey sequel to Hamlet in which a marginal character takes center stage and battles with his betters for control of the story. But it blossoms into a thoughtful consideration of whether truth is worth the trouble. Fortinbras thinks not, and it takes the combined efforts of most of Hamlet’s characters, living and dead, to bring him around. Director Justin Fletcher and his ensemble handle Blessing’s allusions (to Hamlet, to Waiting for Godot, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and his own jokes with equal facility. Ophelia (Katherine Ripley in an electric performance) tells the smitten Fortinbras, “Women don’t reach their sexual peak until they’re dead.” Defiant artistic director Jim Slonina is appropriately smarmy as Osric, John Harrell wonderfully earnest as Horatio, and Jason Kae in command of every nuance as Fortinbras. Richard Ragsdale makes Polonius’s postmortem silence more eloquent than the old man could ever have hoped to be in life. As Hamlet, John Sanders ably bridges the play’s serious and comic aspects, though much of his performance is seen only on television.

The comment on illusion and truth embodied in the TV Hamlet hits home, particularly after a broadcast week consisting of heads mouthing solemn-sounding gibberish in response to the unspeakable. Likewise, Fortinbras’s casual tailoring of facts, coupled with his reasonable point that what the story is depends on who you are, will resonate with those who wonder whether calling mass murder an “act of war” commits us to a reaction whose agenda is hidden behind the rubric of justified self-defense like Polonius behind the arras. When Fortinbras says, “How can we be heroes if we can’t even see what we’ve triumphed over?…We need someone to hate,” it’s hard not to draw parallels with current events.

But those events also undermine the play to some extent. Jokes about mass regicide by sabotage and uncontrollable armies on the march fall a bit flat. This likely accounts for the play’s having taken perhaps ten minutes to hit its stride last Saturday night. But soon enough Fletcher’s judicious mix of verbal and physical humor was sufficient to pull laughs from even the most depressed viewer. Designers Simon Lashford (set), Troy Fujimura (lighting), Christine E. Pascual (costumes), and Richy Norwood (video and special effects) give the whole production the right snap.

Hypocrites director Sean Graney has likewise crafted a well-paced, graceful production. This Arcadia never loses focus or clarity despite Stoppard’s flood of allusions and intellectual in-jokes and the challenge of presenting the play’s interwoven stories, about the Coverly family and its hangers-on in the early 19th century and the Coverly family and its hangers-on today. In 1809, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (flawlessly portrayed by producer Mechelle Moe) is equally concerned with attracting the attention of her tutor, Septimus Hodge (John Byrnes, equally good), and with developing a theory of mathematics to describe the natural world (anticipating 20th-century chaos theory). In the present day, scholars Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightengale, with help from Hannah’s mathematician boyfriend Valentine Coverly, compete to figure out what happened in 1809, stretching or missing or misinterpreting the truth according to their own lights.

This structure gives Stoppard the opportunity to engage in a sort of dialectic with himself, enlarging upon his themes of time and loss and the evanescence of love. But its success depends on the two stories being equally involving–and they’re not. We’re interested in the 1809 events–what’s going on between Septimus and all the women of the house and in the rivalry between Septimus’s pal Lord Byron and minor poet Ezra Chater (Will Schutz in a dazzling performance). But we keep getting interrupted by visits to the 20th century that are full of labored allusions, academic politics, and the occasional coy reference to sex, always carefully stripped of love. If Stoppard’s point is simply that everything degenerates, he’s spouting the kind of undergraduate nihilism he should long since have outgrown.

But if his point is that everything regenerates–that what goes around inevitably comes around, disguised but not transformed–then there may be something missing from the Hypocrites’ approach to the contemporary relationships. If there’s supposed to be sexual energy between Hannah and Nightengale, as the text suggests (“You have a way with you, Nightengale,” she says right after he’s done something wholly obnoxious), we can’t feel it–and its absence sabotages that half of the play. Donna McGough gives a poised, surprisingly warm performance in the thankless role of Hannah, a stereotyped frigid intellectual who won’t even let her boyfriend kiss her, and Don Bender is wonderfully asinine as the self-smitten Nightengale. There’s just nothing between them, and I suspect that’s because Stoppard has no faith in what might be between them: you can almost hear him bemoaning the lack of true love nowadays.

But it’s the playwright’s lack of love–in the New Testament sense of charity–that’s the real culprit. While displaying his own erudition in multitudinous references to mathematics, literary history, and philosophy, Stoppard condemns others’ search for knowledge as futile. Shaw would have made short work of that kind of pretension.

Stoppard’s clever critique of false nostalgia is admirable, as the 1809 Coverlys begin the process of building “ruins where there never was a house.” Why, then, does he indulge in it himself? His use of chaos theory to comment on the difficulty of predicting or maintaining anything–pure love, pure intellect, even pure design–is as elegant as his use of coin flipping and probability theory in Rosencrantz. And his faith in the indestructibility of ideas is moving: “What we let fall is picked up by those behind….[N]othing can be lost.” He’s just ungenerous to the people who share the world with him now. When all is said and done about Hannah and Nightengale, much has been said but nothing has been done–or ever will be. Thomasina and Septimus have no more success, but they have infinitely more tenderness and humanity. Stoppard allows them to grow, even if they can’t quite reach each other.

You may wonder how anyone can give a good goddamn about plays, especially plays about plays, at a time like this. But as I chatted with my fellow patrons before Friday’s show and again at intermission and curtain–more contact with other theatergoers than I’d ever had before–I realized how, and why. There weren’t many of us, but we were together, and that was really the point.

Lily Tomlin concludes The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe by reporting that her alien friends told her the theater was their favorite place on earth. But when she asked them what they’d seen, she found they hadn’t been looking at the stage. “They thought the experience was all those people, sitting together in the dark.” Right now, that part of the experience means more than ever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Arlo Brian Guthrie/Margaret Lakin.