Poets and lunatics have a great deal in common, teaches playwright Tom Stoppard. He must be a little of both to pen a work as magnificent, lyrical and arresting as “Arcadia,” now playing at the University Theater through Saturday.
Set in a single room with light-colored walls, two large windows, and a set of French doors, the action of “Arcadia” is anchored by one long, sturdy-looking table in the center of the stage. “Arcadia” is lit from within by the charm and warmth of its actors, and by the intellect, wit and emotion of Stoppard’s script.
The play dips from reason into madness and back again, while deftly weaving two storylines — one set in 1809, the other in the modern era — together with philosophy and mathematics, dry academic scholarship, and passionate emotions. In the 19th century, a group of upper-crust British intellectuals and society types debate the landscaping of the Coverly estate, attend to the tutoring of the young Coverly girl Thomasina and engage in romantic trysts and duels of honor. In the 20th century, the Coverly descendants share their estate with a pair of academics researching Byron and botany, respectively.
Willa Fitzgerald ’13 plays the lovely Thomasina, a mathematical prodigy, with just the right amounts of cheekiness and naïveté. Danielle Frimer ’10 nimbly portrays the modern scholar Hannah Jarvis with a prickly exterior and a soft heart. The play has its share of lengthy, technical speeches, but Austin Trow ’12, as Valentine Coverly, convincingly delivers his lectures as though he were a fresh, young mathematician who has not yet been disillusioned by the world. Of course, it helps that these excellent performances are more than matched by Stoppard’s writing.
In the first two scenes, Stoppard cleverly introduces the two time periods, which at first surprise and jar the viewer, but quickly become inextricably intertwined. An apple placed on the table in the 20th century is picked up and bitten in the 19th, then used as a prop in a mathematical proof back in the 20th. The use of so few items in the play – a tortoise named “Lightning” or “Plotus,” a sketch of a hermit, a book of bad poetry — grant the objects magical power as they become clues in a historical mystery.
The use of music in the play is equally enchanting. Jourdan Urbach ’13 composed for the production, and his delicate piano riffs, singing violin melodies, and the occasional energized guitar strumming perfectly complement the mood and moments that call for them.
Be warned — “Arcadia” commands your presence for over two and a half hours, but they are hours well spent. The dialogue tends towards the verbose and intellectual (the less charitable would call it long-winded), but if you have a passion for science or literature, you will most likely walk out of the theater floored. The cream in your cup of coffee will set off cerebral quandaries and philosophical musings for hours — or days.
With the marvelous direction of Tamara Fisch ’00, the detail-oriented production of Oren Stevens ’11, and the sheer joy of the play’s writing, the characters of “Arcadia” dance for an audience that is patient enough to let them. I highly recommend that you stay in your seat until the final scene — a lovely and heartrending sequence that bends space and time. It’s an old-fashioned waltz that hits you like an atom bomb.