Every summer, at Atlantic Stage 2 in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, the exceptional Potomac Theatre Project comes to town under the PTP/NYC umbrella. This year is especially good, and marks their 31st season, with two plays by British playwrights in rep: Howard Barker’s Pity in History and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The contrast of these timely plays – politics, patriotism and war vs. knowledge, philosophy and carnal embraces – highlights the versatility of all the actors, without exception. PTP is an extraordinary company.
“Theatre should be a taxing experience,” said Howard Barker in a 2012 Guardian interview, adding, “The greatest achievement of a writer is to produce a character who creates anxiety.” Pity in History, bracingly directed by Richard Romagnoli, gives us all that and more, setting the play inside a cathedral near London during the beginning of the English Revolution. Opening with a bang not a whimper, there is the chaos caused by the rabid patriotism of crazed, pack-mentality soldiers led by Factor (Jay Dunn) a nationalistic officer, destroying the cathedral’s artifacts and “idols” ; there is “collateral damage” in the form of Murgatroyd (Jonathan Tindle), a cook, dying slowly in excruciating fashion and as Croop (Christopher Marshall), the cool-as-marble chaplain remarks, “I never knew a man dies so badly, it dishonours the regiment.” Croop, an arrogant ideologue, fancies that the soldiers will become “soldiers of God” and he their cultish leader. In the middle of this is a mason, Gaukroger (a terrific Steven Dykes) and note that Barker did not name this character “artist.” Gaukroger is too pragmatic to be only an artist, with the wrong upbringing and class to call himself one. Instead, he works on commission building monuments to the dead of upper-class patrons like the widow Venables (the appropriately glacial Kathleen Wise). This pragmatism is what saves him: war, politics, patriotism, idealism are of no interest. Gaukroger is the artist as survivor, waiting out the chaos until the next wave of history washes over him. As he says to his sweet, wayward apprentice, Pool (Matt Ball), “You have all sculpture in the world stored in your fingertips if you watch. And if they do not crush your fingers you can build it all again, like the books can be re-written and all the pictures painted over again…” What is left to history after the cycles of destruction and violence and chaos is what is built and rebuilt, pieces put back together again, Caravaggios stored in a basement for posterity to unearth… the artist survives.
The Atlantic 2 is not an easy space to make look like a cathedral, so praise to Mark Evancho’s Scenic Design, to the Lighting Design of Hallie Zieselman, the Sound Design of Cormac Bluestone, some of which was truly frightening.
What history leaves behind also occupies the minds in Tom Stoppard’s astonishing, time-traveling Arcadia. Beautifully directed by Cheryl Faraone, seemingly disparate elements of two parallel worlds- the laws of attraction, Romanticism vs. Classicism, landscape gardening, academia, a mathematical prodigy, misogyny, the known and the unknown – coalesce into one where heart and mind work in unison.
The play opens in 1809. Septimus (a fine Andrew William Smith) is tutoring his thirteen year-old pupil, Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy, great in a difficult part) at her family’s very large country home in Derbyshire. He is also cuckolding one “poet” Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle, in humorous form after his long death in No Pity in History) while also having it off with Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom (a fantastic Megan Byrne) and palling around with an unseen Lord Byron. It becomes quite clear that the young Thomasina, a math prodigy, is outpacing her teacher, and indeed, everyone else around her. It takes a while for her mother to cotton on, what with this garden of hers in need of landscaping by one Noakes (Sebastian LaPointe), who eschews Classicism for a touch of the Gothic. Lady Croom is also aware of the amorous notes going back and forth in her own home, ferried by Jellaby, the butler (Steven Dykes, superb and almost unrecognizable from No Pity in History).
The counterpoint, in alternating scenes, is set at the turn of the millennium in the same country house. Hannah (Stephanie Janssen, excellent), a scholar and author, is excavating the history of the Gothic garden for her new book with the help of the Coverly descendants: Chloe (Eliza Renner, delightful), Valentine (Jackson Prince, spot on), a mathematician, and Gus (Manny Duran, expressive and elegant). Hannah is quite happy mucking about in the garden until she is rudely interrupted by Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper, magnificent in a role to relish), an insufferable don and critic of the first degree. He lies, dismisses her work, then suggests a partnership of sorts, as long as it suits him. While Hannah is increasingly motivated by her fascination with Thomasina and digs deeper in the library archives, researching her relationship with Septimus and her prodigious gifts, Bernard becomes more and more enamored of his quasi-fictional story. But there are consequences for hubristic ambition. Bernard, publicly humiliated, cries, “Of course it’s a disaster! I was on ‘The Breakfast Hour’!”
There are parallels between Hannah and Thomasina. Hannah says to Valentine, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.” Thomasina, on the other hand, not only wants to know everything, she wants to know that which is unknowable. Witness her lament at the burning of the great library of Alexandria: “Oh Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?”
Septimus replies, “….We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.” What Thomasina does not yet know is she, too, will become part of the lost brilliance she fears; and what Septimus does not yet understand is love that comes too late, and the grief he will carry with him for the rest of his life. And that is the case with all of the arguments in this play: in the end, we are complex, contradictory, flesh-and-blood human beings, with wants, needs, desires, emotions and confusion.
PTP’s production of Arcadia is exquisite, nuanced, funny, heartrending. All credit to the beautiful costuming by Mira Veikley; the Scenic Design by Mark Evancho and his choice of tortoise; the gorgeous Lighting Design of Hallie Zieselman. Arcadia is a highlight in the heat of this 2017 New York City summer.
Pity in History was written in 1984; Arcadia in 1993. Both plays are about history, about what remains. Fortunately for us, these plays have remained and seem neither dusty nor dated; they are applicable to our world today. Great art does that. Great art survives. PTP/NYC keeps great dramatic art on the stage. We here at ONE wish PTP would come to New York City more often, and stay a good deal longer.