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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

October 19, 2023 Issue
PART 5 (October 13, 2023)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at Burning Coal Is
a Heady and Endlessly Clever Comedy

Sir Tom Stoppard's Arcadia -- playing Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 29th in Burning Coal Theatre Company's Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh -- is a heady and endlessly clever comedy about science, philosophy, and relationships, but mostly about the value of the search for meaning.

I'm starting this review with the author, Tom Stoppard, one of the greatest contemporary writers in the theater. He is the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, as well as dozens of other stage plays. He has also contributed to the film industry, including an Academy Award® for the script for Shakespeare in Love. He also contributed to Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, Brazil, and The Russia House. His name alone is enough to recommend this play.

Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis deftly directs Arcadia and seems to do a few dozen other jobs before, during, and after the show. His love and dedication to the arts is quite evident. The cast was simply remarkable, managing a challenging script, packed with dialogue. The group not only delivered the sophisticated scientific lines, but also did them in flawless British accents.

The story is split between two moments in time. In the early 1800s, we find Thomasina Coverly (played by Susanna Skaggs), a 13-year-old mathematics prodigy, learning from Septimus Hodge (Daniel Cryer-Muthedath Ryder), her tutor and a friend of Lord Byron. Lord Byron is never seen, but is an integral character throughout the play. Ryder was particularly fine as the cocksure tutor. Accompanying them in the past are Jacob Berger as Ezra Chater and Maggie Lea as Lady Croom, both also outstanding.

Half of the play takes place in 1993, where Hannah Jarvis (Emily Rieder) and Bernard Nightengale (Byron Jennings II) are academic researchers working on scholarly works that, at times, are at cross purposes. Both actors are amazing. This may sound all a bit heavy, but the story also contains a significant amount as humor to go with the science and math. The work of Sir Isaac Newton also comes up a lot.

The cast is rounded out with solid supporting performances by Julian Simoes, Chandler Vance, Thom Christiansen, Chance Thompson, Matara Hitchcock, and Ian L. Finley. The set (by Stephen R. White) suited the story perfectly, and the costumes (by Beth Gargan), particularly those from the past, were well conceived.

Arcadia is not a comedic trifle. It is deep and rich and considered to be one of the best science-related works ever written. It is elevated and erudite and might not be for everyone. The script will require you to think a bit, because the ultimate theme is the value, importance, and need of the search for meaning.

Burning Coal's Murphey School Auditorium is a smaller venue, with about 135 seats, and was pretty much full for opening night (Oct. 12th). I was told by Jerome Davis that there are plenty of seats for weeks two and three of the show, so I would recommend buying tickets soon. Definitely arrive early, because seating is general admission, and latecomers will very possibly end up in the balcony. But there are no bad seats, and it was great to attend a show where the performers did not need microphones.

Leave your younger children at home for this one, but treat yourself to an elevated experience at a local theater. You won't be disappointed.

Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13-15, 19-22, and 26-29), directed by Jerome Davis and starring (in alphabetical order) Jacob Berger as Ezra Chater, Byron Jennings II as Bernard Nightengale, Maggie Lea as Lady Croom, Emily Rieder as Hannah Jarvis, Daniel Cryer-Muthedath Ryder as Septimus Hodge, and Susanna Skaggs as Thomasina Coverly, plus Thom Christiansen, Ian L. Finley, Matara Hitchcock, Julian Simoes, Chance Thompson, and Chandler Vance (Burning Coal Theatre Company in the Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh). VIDEOS: PRESENTER:,,,, and PODCASTS: 2023-24 MAINSTAGE SEASON: VENUE: and DIRECTIONS/PARKING: COVID PRECAUTIONS: ARCADIA (1993 West End and 1995 Broadway Comedy):,, and THE SCRIPT (excerpts): SIR TOM STOPPARD (Czechoslovakia-born English playwright and screenwriter, nee Tomáš Sträussler):,,,,, and TICKETS: $30 ($20 students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel, and $25 seniors 65+), except $20 Thursday Special and $5 Thursdays and Fridays for students 18 and under with ID. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-834-4001 or [email protected]. PLEASE DONATE TO: Burning Coal Theatre Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert O'Connell is a playwright, and has had dozens of productions and awards throughout the world. He has a MS degree in Management Systems Analysis. A lifelong educator, O'Connell has also published three novels at and two humor anthologies from his blog, He and his wife have settled in Cary, NC.


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