Nothing in “Arcadia” sets the heart aflutter like iterated algorithms, the second law of thermodynamics, the history of English gardens and the discovery of esoteric historical documents. And only a zealous romantic like Tom Stoppard could write a comedic passion play with such wit, intelligence and technical jargon and, at the evening’s close, leave the audience weak in the knees.
If Stoppard weren’t so enamored with the stage, it would be easy to mistake him for a scientist, historical novelist or private eye. And although each of those professions requires an enthusiastic imagination, he is too much of a dreamer for any of them. “Arcadia” is an energetic mystery, history, and calculus lesson — all shoved into a time machine. It sounds like poetry and feels like a cautious love story.
“Arcadia,” which turned 10 years old last week, enjoys a spirited, if imperfect, belated birthday bash in the Branford common room this weekend. Directed by theater studies professor Toni Dorfman, the production, on one hand, is a bare-bones homage to Stoppard’s words; Dorfman uses only eight instruments to light the show, and a table and a handful of plain wooden chairs are the main elements of the set. On the other hand, with unabashedly extravagant and colorful period costumes, the show revives the radiant nature of its original production at the Royal National Theater in London a decade ago.
The play straddles two centuries from the same parlor on the Sidley Park estate in Derbyshire, England. Half of the play is set in 1809, and observes a pert, 13-year-old mathematical prodigy (Zoe Kazan ’05), who innocently disproves Newtonian physics and disrupts a few other forces of nature by exercising her freedom of lust — “the attraction that Newton left out.” The present-day scenes, coated with typical Stoppard irony, follow two rival historians played by Liz Meriwether ’04 and Patrick Knighton ’05 who try in vain to recreate those enchanting days of 1809.
The show is quintessential Stoppard, culling together many recurring elements from the playwright’s oeuvre. From “Artist Descending a Staircase,” it borrows a nonlinear structure, a mistrust of documents and records to explain the past, and a fear — or is it an illicit pleasure? — that individuals can easily delete the knowledge of today from the future of human memory. At the same time, “Arcadia” reasserts the honor and importance of historical investigation, however futile. Meriwether’s historian tells us, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.” The play also continues what “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” began: Stoppard’s obsession with the undocumented borderlands of the literary canon. In “Arcadia,” the historians try to implicate Lord Byron in a murder plot at Sidley Park. Finally, as “The Real Inspector Hound,” among others, did, this production indulges Stoppard’s craving to see theater and memory overlap with real life. The play concludes with a surreal fusion — or at least, coexistence — of 1809 and the present.
If “Arcadia” is heady, hilarious and challenging, by running over two-and-a-half hours, it’s also overwritten. There are a dozen characters when only about half really matter, and there are many relationships and strands of thought that are introduced and subsequently abandoned. When Stoppard unleashes, he’s bound to create clamor that confuses the central issues. As Meriwether’s assistant notes at one point: “There’s just too much bloody noise.”
Dorfman’s production is ably acted overall. Meriwhether is the best she’s been in recent memory, as an earthy, assertive intellectual. Natalia Payne ’03 as the self-righteous nineteenth-century Lady Croom, and Lisa Siciliano ’05 as a bubbly, contemporary 18-year-old, impressive in supporting roles. Other performances that start slowly come alive in time for the crucial scenes in the second act.
Kazan turns out a solid but timid performance in the difficult but pivotal role of Thomasina, the child wonder. Kazan’s wobbly ankles and rounded posture work well enough for the rebellious youth, but her sloppy physicality is incongruous with her tangible and unerring determination to pronounce every word as precisely as possible in her sporty British accent. If she doesn’t have too little passion to back up Thomasina’s tremendous talent, then she has too little indifference to underscore her effortless intellectual achievements.
But the biggest disappointment — or affirmation — of the evening is the realization that the Branford common room makes for a hideous theater. Aside from the noise pollution echoing from the basement lounge or outside through propped doors to the courtyard, the uncooperative April weather turns the common room into an icebox by the end of the first act. And although Dorfman attempts to use the courtyard to her advantage — by blocking some action on the stone pathways — too many Branfordians become distracting voyeurs and little is, or can be, done about it.
The space, the characters, and Stoppard’s style takes some getting used to, but the payoff at the end is worth the effort. Though nearly two centuries separate two lasting couples at the play’s end, the pairs are united in a waltz that highlights their kindred emotions, but irreconcilable conceptions of each other. As the lights slowly fade out on the couples, many insights rush to the brain, but none as forcefully as the fact that we’re erasing history as fast as we’re creating it, and all we can do is to keep on dancing.