Past and present overlap in Arcadia
by Owen Schaefer
The phrase ‘English theater in Tokyo’ can sometimes feels like an oxymoron to drama fans and theatergoers looking for performances in our sizable city. Faced with infrequent and overpriced visits from touring productions, it often seems tempting to go watch a movie instead.
But community theater in Tokyo is alive and well, and more established than you may think. Take a look at the Tokyo International Players, or TIP. This venerable group has been staging regular productions for 109 years, and has been a magnet for visiting actors, directors, and theater adherents throughout that time. Established in 1897, the group was first called the ‘Amateur Dramatic Society,’ and both its players and audiences contained a mixture of diplomats, aristocracy, and even royalty. The adopted brother of Emperor Meiji, Prince Kan’in, is reported to have watched their very first performance.
While you are not likely to find Princess Masako at the American Club venue these days, TIP performances still draw upon the best of Tokyo’s theatrical talent. With an ever-increasing pool of foreign expatriates, students, and visitors to choose from, the members may change, but the performance quality continues to improve.
“It’s quite a transient group,” says Conor Hanratty, director of TIP’s most recent production, “but there has been wonderful continuity nonetheless.”
Hanratty sits in the fluorescent glare of TIP’s practice space in St. Alban’s Church, where he’s busy focusing the exuberance of the most recent group of ‘transients’ into a rehearsal of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
This is Hanratty’s first time directing for TIP, but his experience seems to stretch beyond his years. With degrees from Trinity College in Dublin, and London University’s Holloway College, he has directed a host of other productions including Les Liaisons Dangereuses, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as his own translations of three Greek tragedies.
The cast’s credits reveal a breadth of experience as well. Actress Angela Peachey, despite her role as a 16-year-old girl, is something of a TIP veteran. This is her fourth appearance with the group, and she has also been featured in several Intrigue Theatre performances and a number of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Playing opposite Peachey is Alec Von Bargen, who has worked in television, film, and stage productions, appearing in everything from off-Broadway shows to his recent cinematic role as Fidel Castro in the upcoming film Name.
Each of the cast’s 12 members brings something to the mix. Even the show’s youngest player, 16-year-old Lewis Williamson, has a long string of acting credits to his name, including appearances in TIP’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof and Macbeth at the New National Theatre.
Williamson grumbles as he leaves the rehearsal early. He has homework to do.
Having characters this young in a play is often a red light for directors, but Williamson’s dual role as Gus and Augustus is a key part, which pulls the story together in its finale. Hanratty seems unperturbed, confessing it’s not the only difficulty in Arcadia.
“There are children, there are animals, there’s choreography, there are two different time frames that have to be performed in the one room at the same time, there are off-stage gunshots, and dead animals, and music … the list of things that directors would shy away from is all here in this play. And we’re still doing it.”
Playwright Tom Stoppard does not write his works to be easy. One of his early plays, Rosencrantz and Gulldenstern are Dead, rocked the festival circuit with its intelligent blend of wit, mathematics, and Shakespeare. But he gained even wider fame for writing the stunning film Shakespeare in Love, which took home seven Oscars, including Best Film and Best Original Screenplay.
Critics consider the more challenging Arcadia to be Stoppard’s masterpiece. “It’s a beautiful play,” says Hanratty. “It’s very enjoyable to watch because it’s deceptively simple.”
Nonetheless, simple descriptions of the story can be evasive. Every scene takes place in the same room of an English country house, alternating between the early 1800s and the present. During the finale the two time frames overlap, bringing all the characters to the stage at once.
In the opening, Septimus Hodge (Alec Von Bar-gen), the 22-year-old tutor for young Thomasina (Angela Peachey), finds himself in trouble with a household guest after being seen in ‘carnal embrace’ with the other man’s wife. At the same time, Thomasina has made some rather unexpected connections in her algebra homework, and the house is in an uproar over landscaping changes to the classical garden.
In the present day we are introduced to a recognition-hungry researcher named Bernard, who turns up at the house hunting for information about the poet Byron. Bernard claims that Byron may have fought and killed someone in a duel there, and his interests unexpectedly converge with those of another researcher, Hannah, who is studying the history of the house’s garden. The discoveries turn out to be more surprising and more important than either of them expects, and as the characters in the present attempt to connect the dots of the past, evidence is lost, found, crumpled, burned, and folded away in some of the most unlikely places.
Stoppard once famously remarked that he did not write plays for discussion, but Arcadia skillfully blends aspects of math and science into its literary text with some far-reaching philosophical results, that illustrates the clash of romanticism and classicism, which in many ways still affects us today. Add thermodynamics to the mix, along with some fractals, and a pinch of historical criticism; then stir it all into some rice pudding with a spoonful of sex… now, that’s a play that begs to be discussed.
But beneath the bigger ideas, Arcadia is an extremely funny comedy, employing Stoppard’s trademark banter and sarcasm, as well as a grounded drama. By turns hopeful, sad, and romantic, it harbors a solidly human tale that Hanratty sees as the core of the play.
“What we hope to do with the show — and I think it’s beginning to come through certainly — is expose the heart as much as the brain of all of these people,” he explains. “They’re all very passionate about what they follow, and what they believe in, and what they’re trying to find out.”
In that respect, Arcadia seems to hold a mirror to TIP itself — a group whose passion for performance has kept English theater on the stage in Tokyo for more than a century, and whose experience will surely bring the complexities of Arcadia vividly to life.