Worst Shows of 2011
#3 – Arcadia
|Bel Powley, Raul Esparza, Lea Williams, and Tom Riley in Arcadia|
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia represents everything I hate about that snobby entity known as “The Theatre.” Here is a show so concerned with being highbrow that it blatantly disregards concepts like interesting characters and dramatic tension in favor of hyper-literate philosophical mouthpieces and intellectual debate. The end result is one of the least entertaining plays of the past 20 years, made even more insufferable by David Leveaux’s miscast and plodding revival.
The show’s very premise is the first indication that someone involved (likely Stoppard) was more interested in showing off his highly educated mind than in writing a compelling drama. There are two distinct plot threads, one involving the tutoring of a precocious young girl in 1809 and the other the investigation by present-day scholars into a previously unknown chapter of the poet Lord Byron’s life. Linking the two storylines is their shared location (the entire play is set in front room of an English country house) and a lot of talk about high-level math. Yes, math.
Now, I’m not saying that a play in which large portions of dialogue deal with the contested authorship of an obscure work of literature or a 13-year-old girl’s discovery of a complex mathematical theorem nearly 150 years before it is formally recognized can’t make for interesting drama (although it would be an uphill battle). I am saying that if you purposely make the dialogue of such a play so dense that only someone with a specialized master’s degree can understand it, you need to provide characters who display recognizable emotional conflict. That way, those of us not intimately familiar with fractal equations and the biographies of 19th century poets have something to latch on to. But I guess Stoppard was afraid that would be the same as dumbing down his brilliant work of genius, so he instead opted for an extremely pretentious show that runs north of 3 hours in length.
The actors in this production did nothing to help matters. For starters, the cast had the biggest case of mush-mouth since Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, making them virtually impossible to understand. Since they were already talking about concepts and using jargon the average audience member isn’t familiar with, the extra barrier to comprehension made it frustrating beyond belief to try and follow the plot (assuming there was one to begin with). The characterizations tended towards shrill more often than not – I guess math and literature make these people extremely angry – which made sitting through Arcadia feel like some kind of bizarre torture.
Everyone involved in this production needs to learn a simple lesson: plays are meant to entertain. This does not mean they cannot be intelligent, thought-provoking, or challenging an audience’s assumptions about life and the universe. But if people aren’t enjoying themselves, they aren’t going to go home and have lengthy discussions about the Big Ideas you tried to cram into your show. They’re going to say “that sucked” and do their best to forget about the time and money they wasted on your crappy play. That's what I’m doing with Arcadia, something I intend to avoid like the plague from now on.