Presented by ACT I
Sept. 24-Oct. 10 at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Ave.
8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2:30 p.m. Sun.
$10 adults, $8 students and seniors
For reservations, call 726-2281
Directors usually come to the first rehearsal of a play armed with a pretty good idea of what the work means. Whether based on instinct or exhaustive research, they knowor think they knowwhat the play they are directing is about and have already decided how they and their cast will bring that vision to life onstage. For Robert Kiefer, who’s directing Arcadia for ACT I, the first rehearsal is just the beginning of a learning process that goes on right until opening nightand quite possibly beyond.
“I don’t know what plays are about,” Kiefer says. “That’s why I direct themto find out. When I direct a play, it’s always about the discovery process, not about getting actors to learn lines and keep from bumping into the furniture.” In the case of Tom Stoppard’s complex 1993 spin through time and space called Arcadia, Kiefer’s approach seems especially appropriate.
Stoppard sets the action in a single room in Sidley Park, an English country estatebut in two times, 1809 and the present. In the 19th-century portions of the play, the plot revolves around a precocious 13-year-old named Thomasina Coverly and her 22-year-old tutor Septimus Hodge as they untangle the mysteries of mathematics, physics, and love. Meanwhile, in 1999, the residents of Sidley Park, including Valentine Coverly, a latter-day mathematician and descendant of Thomasina, grapple with their own problems and puzzles as they dig into the hidden past of the house. These timelines alternate throughout the play and eventually overlap.
A central theme is chaos and order as reflected in such diverse plot elements as the second law of thermodynamics, illicit affairs, duels, Lord Byron, the history of English garden design, and West Indian monkey bites. Sorting through this assortment of plot pieces and characters, all conveyed through Stoppard’s witty, satiric dialogue, is a challenge for any director.
“Arcadia is the most complicated play next to Hamlet that I’ve ever read,” agrees Kiefer. “What I find especially intriguing is that, as in Shakespeare, there are no coincidences in the play. There is never a moment when this play is not twisting and turning in on itself to support not only what is going on at that moment, but what has gone on three scenes previously and [will go on] three scenes from now.”
As an example, Kiefer cites an early scene in which Thomasina is mourning the knowledge lost in the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria. Her tutor consoles her by telling her that those plays by Sophocles that burned will “turn up piece by piece or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” The play goes on to reveal that Thomasina herself will come up with brilliant scientific theorems that are destined to be lost and then found again 200 years later.
One of the topics discussed in the play is Fermat’s Last Theorem, an incomplete mathematical equation scribbled in the margin of a notebook by French number theorist Pierre de Fermat in 1630. Mathematicians tried for centuries to solve the enigma before an Englishman named Andrew Wiles did so in 1994, a little over a year after Arcadia debuted in London. The real-life sequence of loss and rediscovery, of course, mirrors Thomasina’s fictional one.
The mathematical theorems, real and invented, that figure into the action of Arcadia are especially dear to the heart of the director, who holds a degree in electrical engineering. Props also play an important role in Arcadia and are another specialty of Kiefer’s. “One of the million things going on in this play is that things used in 1809 are being studied by the characters in 1999,” he says. “So there has to be two of the same thingonly, one of them has to look new and the other has to look like it’s been sitting on a shelf for 200 years.”
The prop master at Tennessee Repertory Theater for six years, Kiefer now works as a prop master and art director on films and videos shot locally. It’s a career, like directing, that appeals to Kiefer’s love of discovery. When he worked on The Green Mile, the upcoming Tom Hanks film shot partially in Middle Tennessee, Kiefer assisted the prop master brought in from Hollywood. “They were shooting a scene one morning with a pack of bloodhounds chasing escaped prisoners during the Depression,” he says. “When the local owners showed up with their dogs, the animals were wearing bright-blue nylon harnesses, which of course was all wrong for the era of the film.”
Knowing nothing of the resources in the area, the prop master turned to Kiefer for a quick solution. “I asked [him] for $300 and took off driving. I found a tack shop where the owner was able to make these beautiful leather dog harnesses for me, for $15 each, by noon.”
In his 15 years in Nashville, Kiefer has directed everything from the hit Broadway farce Lend Me a Tenor to Nan Gurley’s one-woman show The Diary of Opal Whiteley. Whatever the style or literary merits of the play itself, Kiefer says his approach is the same. “It’s always a journey into why the characters are doing what they’re doing at a particular moment. That’s true for simple plays as well as deep ones. It’s just that some, like Arcadia, have more in them to find. The exciting part about directing a play like this is finding all of those hidden clues.... But if you are willing to look, it is all there.”
And as Hannah, one of the modern-day characters in Arcadia, puts it, “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.”
In a twist of timing worthy of Stoppard himself, another local production Arcadia will run almost concurrently with the ACT I presentation. Vanderbilt University Theater also opens its season with the Stoppard play Sept. 30-Oct. 9. For more information on that staging, call 322-2404.
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