- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

“Arcadia” is quintessential Tom Stoppard: a mongrel mix of highbrow ideas, including, among others,

changing tastes in landscape gardening, chaos theory, English algebra, the nature of genius, Lord Byron, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the perils of carnal embrace.

In the Rep Stage’s respectful production of the 1993 comedy, Mr. Stoppard’s wordplay is as glittering as always, especially in the sprawl of his delicately metaphysical speeches about time and space. The deftly drawn characters are there, and so are the intellectual detective story and the potent theatrical device of mingling past and present in a single room. The staging is impeccable, particularly the understated wealth of Tony Cisek’s set, dominated by looming Palladian windows.

Still, something — a sense of magic in seeing characters who could tell each other so much separated by but a breath of time — is missing from the production, directed by Kasi Campbell. The fault lies in the uneven acting styles.

“Arcadia” takes place in the English country estate of Sibley Park, alternating between the early 1800s (the end of the Age of Reason and the dawning of the Romantic Era) and the modern day. In 1809, the proceedings are dominated by Thomasina Coverly (Rana Kay), a teenage math prodigy, and her dashing tutor, Septimus Hodge (Karl Miller).

While Thomasina and Septimus indulge in intellectual dallying, great changes are afoot in the manor. Lady Croom (Deborah Hazlett) is overseeing the overhaul of her garden from classical symmetry to the irregularity and randomness of Romanticism. Yet the changes reach far beyond the topiary. Lady Croom and the members of the household are grappling with the untidy emotional upheaval of the Byronic Era, which is expressed in various sexual intrigues — “the attraction that Newton left out,” as Mr. Stoppard puts it.

Fast forward to the present, where descendents of the Coverly family still roam Sidley Park, including Valentine (Daniel Frith), a math genius; Chloe (Kari L. Ginsberg), a flirt of the highest order; and the silent, observant Gus (James Flanagan). All flit around historian Hannah Jarvis (Shannon Parks), who is working on a history of the gardens and the identity of the mysterious hermit who lived in the estate’s picturesque hovel during the 1800s.

Hannah’s search for the truth is interrupted by the niggling presence of Bernard Nightingale (the simpering Alex Miller), an academic keen on becoming a celebrity. He believes his shot at fame lies in proving that Lord Byron not only visited Sidley Park, but fled to Albania after being ensnared in a duel over an adulterous affair. However, his idea of proof is to mold the facts — or lack thereof — into a sexy theory of his own making.

“Arcadia” is in part a celebration of feminine instinct: Thomasina senses she has stumbled upon a revolutionary concept even though she lacks the math to prove it, and Hannah has a gut feeling who the hermit is. At the same time, Mr. Stoppard subtly condemns the decline from thinking to feeling: Over-reliance on feeling, he seems to be saying, is decadence and folly, while a lust for knowledge and truth can be as ravishing as pleasures of the flesh.

For all its sparkling wit and giddy wordplay, there is a strain of tragedy running through “Arcadia.” Cruelly, Thomasina has been born out of time. Nobody in her epoch would believe a female, let alone an adolescent, capable of the kind of genius implicit in her intuitive mathematical discovery. The bitter poignancy is heightened when you consider that Thomasina, like most girls of her time, soon was to be pushed into an arranged marriage, leaving academics behind for childbirth and running a household.

Thomasina’s tragedy gives “Arcadia” its emotional heart. This emotion is echoed in the character of Hannah, a woman of great intellectual gifts who cannot bring herself to feel. Miss Parks plays the role as if coldly armed for battle, never letting us see the passion behind Hannah’s search for the whole truth. Miss Kay gives Thomasina an age-appropriate petulance. The subtlety of the character, however, is lost, as is the attraction between Thomasina and Septimus. Sexual attraction is far better expressed in the heat-charged exchanges between Lady Croom and the handsome tutor.

You need an indelible Thomasina, Septimus and Hannah for “Arcadia” to soar, but here, instead, the smaller roles are the stronger ones. Miss Hazlett’s Lady Croom dominates every scene she’s in, while Mr. Frith’s Valentine is an intriguing mix of frustration and intellectual superiority. Bruce Nelson also shines in a brief turn as a keenly affected, hothouse flower of a minor poet.

In the end, you come away still enchanted by Mr. Stoppard’s play but less dazzled by Rep Stage’s often earthbound vision of “Arcadia.”


WHAT: “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard

WHERE: Rep Stage, Howard County Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 28.

TICKETS: $13 to $22

PHONE: 410/772-4900


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