KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 7, 1999
You might not think that mathematical theory would make for a very good dramatic theme. But “Arcadia” may be playwright Tom Stoppard’s most brilliant creation. Both on the stage and in the mind, the play occurs simultaneously on many levels. It might be a bit too complex for some folks, what with its references to algorithms, entropy and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, not to mention its century-spanning time-hopping and its repeated contrasts between classical and romantic temperaments, gardens and intellectual pursuits. But really, if you look beneath the surface, it’s a romance, with a touch of comedy thrown in. One layer deeper, it’s a dramatic representation of a society in transition, both the early 19th century and the late 20th. And even deeper still, it’s a cautionary tale about the illusory nature of truth.
The title, “Arcadia,” refers to a mythical, utopian paradise, where anything is possible. But the play is set in Sidley Park, a 500-acre English estate, alternating between two time frames: 1809 and the present. As the themes and scenes begin to unravel, events in both centuries occur onstage at the same time.
In the past, we meet the young prodigy Thomasina, and her tutor, Septimus. The little genius is equally intrigued by her future potential to fascinate her tutor and math’s endless potential to fascinate her. In the course of her mathematic pursuits, she stumbles upon chaos theory and fractal mathematics, 150 years before they are formally identified or described. Actually, in a blast of truly dramatic irony, only a few weeks after the 1993 premiere of “Arcadia,” a proof was found for Fermat’s Last Theorem, which, as noted in the play, has remained unsolved since the 17th century.
Jumping ahead to the present, we meet two arrogant, competitive academics who are trying to untangle some of the mysteries of Sidley Park — its gardens, its hermit, its pre-pubescent genius, its grouse, its links to Lord Byron, and its profusion of sexual liaisons. They are literary sleuths, guests at the estate that is still owned by the same Coverly family. One of the current inhabitants is also a genius, of the more contemporary – computer — type.
There is considerable balance in the play — as in nature — but plenty of chaos, too. And many twists, turns, puzzles and misconceptions before it’s all sorted out and clarified. Some people may throw their hands up before then. But if you stay with it, it’s well worth the effort, even if ALL your questions may never be fully answered (which is also, of course, true in life). Rarely are we so intellectually titillated and challenged in the theater. Stoppard is known for his cerebral and linguistic acrobatics. But where he sometimes stumbles is in revealing less heart than brain.
Director Sean Murray has remedied that. In his very thoughtful, intricate production, he’s mined all the emotion, so that we care about the characters, and the love story takes center stage.
This San Diego premiere is outstanding. Murray has assembled an extraordinary ensemble. Lisa Maria Guzman is a real delight as Thomasina, by turns ingenuous and precocious. And she makes a worthy match for her tutor, effectively played by Manuel J. Fernandes. Fred Harlow is perfect as an asinine would-be poet, and K.B. Mercer is irresistibly imperious as the Lady of the manor. But the most solid performances belong to Ayla Yarkut as the no-nonsense researcher Hannah Jarvis, and Tim West, in the role of his life — Bernard Nightingale, the pompous, amoral, desperate and deceitful academic who rants, rages and pontificates, leaping wildly to conclusions, and concocting his data rather than analyzing it.
If the collision of math and sex turns you on, you’d better bring a cold compress to the theater. To tweak the mathematical theory that shapes the play, if you’re aroused by intellectual stimulation, then one iteration of “Arcadia” just won’t be enough.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.