Showing funny sides of genius

Play: Columbia's Rep Stage ends its season with Tom Stoppard's time-travel mystery "Arcadia."


March 11, 2004|By R.N. Marshall | R.N. Marshall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Playwright Tom Stoppard, author of such classic works of theater as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing, Rough Crossing, Travesties and The Real Inspector Hound, among others, is best known for his erudite wit and delicious command of the English language.

As a screenwriter, his films, such as Empire of the Sun and Shakespeare In Love, have earned high praise from critics and audiences.

Columbia's Rep Stage, the professional theater in residence at Howard Community College, is ending its 2003-2004 season with Arcadia, another Stoppard gem.

Set in the early 1800s, as well as present day, Arcadia takes the audience on a fascinating journey back and forth between eras to discover answers to an intriguing mystery of love, history and deception that centers on the romantic poet Lord Byron.

Clues surface that point toward a scandal, torrid love affair and duel that may have led to Bryon's mysterious disappearance. A group of contemporary scholars and intellectuals descend upon scientist Valentine Coverly and his ancestral home of Sidley Park in central England to investigate.

Audience members have the unique perspective of seeing events as they happened in 1809, then watching present-day characters as they debate and search for answers in archives and letters.

The original London and Broadway productions of Arcadia in the early 1990s won glowing reviews from critics. Michael Coveney, from Britain's The Observer, wrote that Stoppard's Arcadia "may be his finest work to date, a novelistic, Forsterian epic of painting, poetry, imperialism and literary reputations."

Director Kasi Campbell describes the play as "restoration comedy" and the thrill of a modern "who-done-it mystery." Arcadia has elements of a British sex farce, but is presented with greater subtlety. For example, characters suggestively refer to "the action of bodies in heat." However, this double entendre is, in truth, part of a discussion regarding the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Despite the highly academic themes of Arcadia, Campbell assured "so much of the fun is from laughing at these scholars as they are trying to piece it together, but getting it all wrong." Much of the theatrical intrigue is "waiting to see how the characters figure it all out." The farce becomes a "poignant and touching romance," Campbell said. "We are taken to a wonderful place and are given the chance to reflect on the very continuum of existence."

Actor Bruce Nelson, a Columbia resident who plays Ezra Chater (based on the real-life "minor poet" who lived in the 1800s), said that although there are some "densely worded themes, very much like George Bernard Shaw," the messages are moving and profound. One theory in the play is that "you can't stir things backwards," said Nelson. "Once you start moving forward -- in physics and life -- once there is momentum, you can't go back. We all have to carry on."

"This is straight out of Oscar Wilde" said Karl Miller who plays Hodge, also a mathematician and tutor. In defense of his highly intellectual character, Miller said that "geniuses are misunderstood, often seen as too serious or with conflicted, infantile behavior."

Stoppard's Arcadia shows "how funny can genius be," he said.

Arcadia opens tomorrow and runs through March 28. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. A Thursday performance is to be held at 7 p.m. March 25. A post-show reception will follow Friday's performance, and a post-show discussion will follow the March 19 performance. Rep Stage, Smith Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. Information 410-772-4900 or www.

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