Students, Entirely in Character

By Lawrence Biemiller

Pittsburgh -- Mike Dunay is pacing back and forth in a dim space between eloquence and ordinariness, taking deep breaths, pressing his palms together, muttering his lines. Through the glowing scenery, he can hear Lady Croom berating her landscape architect, Mr. Noakes, in a rich alto and an over-the-top British accent: "... My hyacinth dell is become a haunt for hobgoblins, my Chinese bridge, which I am assured is superior to the one at Kew, and for all I know at Peking, is usurped by a fallen obelisk ... ." To his left, a couple of crew members are playing solitaire on iBooks by the door to the dressing rooms.

To his right, the seats of Carnegie Mellon University's Chosky Theater, empty and echoing during yesterday's run-through, are alive with the rustling and laughter of a first-night audience for Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia. Here in the darkened wings, the student actors' nerves are as taut as the ropes that run up into the flies.

Beyond the door to the dressing rooms is the ordinary world: classes and cellphones, fast food and parking garages. But here on the stage is life as you wish you could live it: Everyone is astonishingly well spoken, incredibly quick, and so smart that the audience can't possibly get all the sly jokes and obscure references Mr. Stoppard worked into the script. For a month and a half now the cast members have spent their weekdays in the first world, trying to stay caught up on assignments and sleep, and their evenings and weekends in the second, where reality shifts with every light cue -- now dawn, now midnight, now 1809, now 1993. You couldn't blame them if the two worlds started to blur.

Chuck Hittinger, who plays Bernard, is whispering his lines behind the set. Rebecca Stanley, who plays Chloë, is stretching beside a table covered in brown paper and laden with props, each filling the outline drawn for it. Mr. Dunay stares up at a black-and-white monitor displaying a live picture of the stage: Lady Croom exits, Thomasina hands Septimus the letter from Mrs. Chater, and the scene ends. Stephen Schellhardt, the very picture of calm while he's Septimus, comes into the wings wringing his hands, his high-collared costume so stiff that he can barely turn his head. Mr. Dunay, looking terrified, positions himself just out of the audience's view behind a black curtain. He takes several more deep breaths, listens intently, and then charges on, scowling: "Sod, sod, sod, sod, sod, sod!"

It has not been easy getting to this point. Gregory Lehane, a professor of theater and music who is the show's director, warned the cast at the first rehearsal that Arcadia's language is dense and its plot full of tricks -- "A mystery is being set up in the present that a future scene in the past will solve," he said at one point. "There are setups that pay off pages later. It's your job to set them up." Meaning that the actors must know what lines to take special care with -- so that the audience will remember the point in the next scene -- and must know when a glance should be quizzical rather than delighted or surprised.

As if that weren't enough, the script could serve as a final exam for any four-year liberal-arts program. It mixes art appreciation, ancient history, physics, mathematics, and literature -- and, of course, sex. One character, Bernard, is a professor with an appetite for television appearances who jumps to several erroneous conclusions about the life of Lord Byron. He publishes in haste -- which he regrets enormously when another character, Hannah, turns up evidence disproving his article. Archimedes, Cleopatra, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Capability Brown, Caroline Lamb, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Stephen Hawking are mentioned, and long speeches explain arcana like iterated algorithms. Characters discuss free will, determinism, the second law of thermodynamics, dwarf dahlias, and the history of landscape architecture in England. It is not an easy play to learn.

Three weeks after the first rehearsal, in fact, things were going so badly that a visitor arrived one night to find Mr. Lehane stalking out two hours early. But the next morning he returned cheerful, with bagels for all. The day's rehearsal included some sharp remarks but moments of levity as well. At one point Mr. Lehane warned, "So if we're not happy with the progress of Arcadia by Wednesday, we're going to do The Music Man, but with the same costumes -- we can't afford new costumes." Someone in the cast came right back with a Music Man lyric: "Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little/Cheep-cheep-cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more."

Now that there's an audience in the theater, though, the actors seem comfortable with their roles -- at least while they're on the stage. Ms. Stanley's Chloë has a brilliant moment with a pair of shoes. Will Reynolds, as Chater, is even more over-the-top than Kylee Rousselot, as Lady Croom. Andrew Gehling has mastered a North England accent to play the landscape architect, whom the exasperated Lady Croom refers to as "Culpability Noakes." And Claudia Duran has mixed confidence and crustiness in an especially credible Hannah. She handles her reading glasses with such fumbling familiarity that it's hard to believe that Ms. Duran is not twice her real age.

And the actors say their two worlds are blurring, in much the same way that the play's 19th- and 20th-century characters appear together in the final scene, their lines interwoven. Over a preshow dinner with Mr. Hittinger and her friend Jonathan Martofel, Ms. Duran says she's finding it "surprisingly easy to melt into the character." At various times during the day, she says, "different lines come to me" -- and then effortlessly she becomes Hannah complaining to Bernard: "You'll queer my pitch!" She and the other cast members never seem to tire of debating their characters' motivations. "Why won't you kiss me?" Mr. Hittinger asks between French fries, referring to Hannah's reluctance to kiss Bernard. "She won't even kiss me," quips Mr. Martofel, neatly echoing a line that belongs to Mr. Dunay's Valentine: "She won't let anyone kiss her."

Kat Mandeville, who plays Thomasina, says she learns something about herself from every character she plays. Thomasina, she says, "has a lot of self-worth, which is very liberating to play in" -- even though the role requires wearing three different wigs and playing two ages, 13 and 17. "The other great thing about Thomasina is that she's in a childlike state of expectation," Ms. Mandeville says. "Being her, I find myself so open to anything that's going on."

For Mr. Hittinger, playing Bernard offers the opposite opportunity: "It's so much fun right now to play an older character." He adds, "I'm finding now that I speak much more with my hands, the way Bernard does." But during the walk back to the theater, he volunteers that "Stoppard is more difficult than Shakespeare," which is easy enough to believe. What makes Mr. Stoppard's dialogue so realistic is that the conversations are anything but straightforward -- characters jibe and feint, lunge and stall. The audience sees the characters misunderstanding each other, or understanding all too well, just like real people.

Or at least that's the hope. From the wings, audience reaction is hard to gauge. Midway through Act One, Zach Fromson, the assistant stage manager, covers the microphone on his headset and whispers that someone in the front row is asleep. But laughter drowns out several lines -- always a good sign -- and when the intermission begins, applause fills the house. Ms. Mandeville creeps up behind the edge of the curtain and puts a finger to her lips. "I want to hear what they're saying."

The performance is not without glitches. In Act One a page and a half of dialogue is accidentally skipped. In Act Two a can of Sterno crucial to burning a letter from Lord Byron refuses to light, spoiling a subtle but excellent joke. The quick-thinking Mr. Schellhardt rescues a plot line by tearing up the letter instead, drawing sighs of relief in the wings.

"The predictable and the unpredictable unfold together to make everything the way it is," says Mr. Dunay's character, Valentine, before the play comes to a lovely, sad close. After the curtain calls and the applause, the house empties, and then, one by one, the cast members appear in street clothes for their final round of notes from Mr. Lehane. He has a number of things to say about the missed pages, along with other requests and suggestions. And then he says, one last time, "Anything else, ladies and germs?"

Ms. Rousselot raises a hand. She almost regrets, she says, having to share with audiences the characters they have come to know so well and enjoy so much -- to cherish, really. Plays exist for audiences, of course, but audiences don't live in them, not the way the actors do. "All of a sudden there are all these people," Ms. Rousselot says, not in Lady Croom's alto but her own. "It's been so intimate."

Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 29, 2004.