Stoppard play a philosophical stage exercise

Theater: Tom Stoppard's `Arcadia' is playing at the Rep Stage in Columbia.

Howard Live

Review

March 18, 2004|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"History never embraces more than a small part of reality," said La Rochefoucauld. The maxim is brilliantly illustrated by Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, the current production at Columbia's Rep Stage.

Although it offers plenty of Stoppard's customary wit and word play, Arcadia is a philosophical exercise -- an exploration of chaos theory. The dialogue bristles with references to mathematics, physics, philosophy, history, literature and English culture. It will be a rare playgoer (or reviewer) who can recognize and comprehend them all.

The action begins in the first decade of the 19th century.

The setting is Sidley Park, stately home of Lord Croom (who never appears). We meet his daughter Thomasina, a girl on the verge of puberty. She is a mathematical genius, and her tutor, a young Oxford man named Septimus Hodge, finds it hard to keep ahead of her.

In the background, a landscape gardener called Noakes is reworking the serene 18th-century garden into the Romantic image of a chaotic wilderness.

We move to the present day -- same room, same family. The elder son of the present Lord Croom is Valentine, a young mathematician who is looking for formulas that might explain human life and history.

A scholar named Hannah Jarvis is studying the estate's formal garden and how it has been altered over the centuries.

She becomes intrigued by a building, created by Noakes, called the hermitage. An old painting of the garden shows a human figure standing outside it.

Hannah diligently searches for the identity of the hermit, but the audience knows that the figure was drawn in by Thomasina as a joke.

Another academic, Bernard Nightingale, arrives uninvited. He hopes to prove that Lord Byron visited Sidley Park, had sex with the wife of a minor poet called Ezra Chater, was challenged to a duel, killed Chater and fled the country.

Again, the audience knows the facts: It was Septimus who had sex with Mrs. Chater, and he jollied the irate husband out of the duel by praising his poetry.

The scenes continue to alternate between past and present.

The two modern scholars search for clues in old books, letters and records, while the audience sees what really happened.

Stoppard underscores the continuity between the two eras with a sly metaphor: A pet tortoise in the 19th-century house is still alive in the present day.

Meanwhile, Valentine discovers that Thomasina had worked out the formula he has been looking for. He reconstructs it in his computer but remains unsatisfied. For him the formula gives only a partial answer to the great question of human existence.

The present-day action works up to Sidley Park's annual fancy dress ball, which requires everyone to assume period costume. This gives Stoppard his chance to put characters from both time periods on stage simultaneously.

At the end we sense that at least one of the academics has got something right: Hannah has satisfied herself that there really was a hermit, and the audience knows who it was and why he became one. The climax of the play indicates an impending tragedy, but carries an optimistic message as well.

Strong cast

Heading a strong cast are Karl Miller (Septimus), Shannon Parks (Hannah), Daniel Frith (Valentine) and Rana Kay (Thomasina). Deborah Hazlett portrays Lady Croom and Kari L. Ginsburg and James Flanagan play Valentine's siblings Chloe and Gus. As Bernard, Alex Miller is broadly comic. Bruce Nelson (the poet Chater), Jack E. Vernon (Noakes, the landscape gardener) and Chris Davenport (Captain Brice) are even more so.

Kasi Campbell's skillful direction shows a thorough understanding of Stoppard's intentions.

Sound designer Mark Anduss has chosen piano music appropriate to the action, from works by Bach, whose counterpoint reflects the play's complex relationships, to the Chopin waltz that accompanies the play's climax.

Rep Stage presents Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" 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 (with an additional performance at 7 p.m. March 25), through March 28 in the Smith Theater, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. There will be a post-show discussion tomorrow. Reservations: 410-772-4900 or www.howardcc.edu/repstage

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