Entertainment » Theatre

Arcadia

by Kilian Melloy
Saturday Aug 20, 2011
Alycia Sacco as Thomasina Coverly in 'Arcadia,' continuing through Aug. 28 at the Boston Center for the Arts
Alycia Sacco as Thomasina Coverly in 'Arcadia,' continuing through Aug. 28 at the Boston Center for the Arts  

Art, science, and faith all intersect at a perpetual human concern: How to pull meaning out of life. It's not an easy task, given the complexities of the modern world and the state of mathematical understanding. For one thing, the nature of the universe -- the nature of nature, if you will -- is, at least as expressed by numbers, endlessly recursive. Summon a visual representation of anything that can be subjected to mathematical analysis and you get pretty pictures of loops and bubbles. Zero in on any tiny detail, zoom up the image, and behold: More of the same.

Where the ancients once thought of the cosmos as nested spheres and quintessence surrounding a crunchy core (the Earth), now science tells us that we have no special place in creation except, perhaps, as observers of the natural world. But what room does that leave for the compelling mysteries of the human experience? Is there a place among the elements and the fundamental forces for attraction of the aesthetic and animal sorts? We can't even sort out the exact nature of gravity, but can we at least make a place among our equations and algorhythms for sex and -- perhaps -- love?

Tom Stoppard's luminous play "Arcadia" poses all of those questions and offers a sly, if not entirely hopeful, model of human-scale physics in progress by overlaying, and sometimes overlapping, the interactions of a single household in two "iterations," geek speak for sets of actions run through from start to finish and then repeated.

In this case, the household's constituents live in two time periods, 1809 and the present. The setting is an English country house occupied by a noble family, the Coverlys. The 19th century Coverlys include Lady Croom (A. Nora Long), her brother, Naval Captain Brice (Glen More), her precocious daughter Thomasina (Alycia Sacco), and a number of guests and staff, including Thomasina's tutor, Septimus (Greg Nussen).

Septimus is a Cambridge graduate, a mathematician and scientist. He's also skilled in the science of seduction, along with other forms of persuasion: He's able to flummox and talk his way out of just about any situation, to sublime comic effect.

Flash forward to 2011, where the household contains not just lord and lady, but also gifted (and perhaps damaged) offspring like Valentine Coverly (Nick Chris), shy Gus (Luke Murtha), who never speaks, and their sister Chloe (Rebbekah Vega Romero). The house is already accommodating one guest, writer and scholar Hannah Jarvis (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard) when another academic, Bernard Nightingale (John Geoffrion) shows up. Jarvis and Nightingale are professional rivals, but they have a few points of interest in common, one of them the Romantic poet Lord Byron -- an august personage who, it turns out, had spend a few days at the house in 1809 due to his friendship with the tutor Septimus.

Jarvis and Nightingale -- together with some input from Valentine, who affectionately calls the skeptical Jarvis his "fiancée" -- begin to piece together a picture of dramatic events that took place more than two centuries earlier. But for all their effort and forensic brilliance, do they have any hope of arriving at a complete and reliable version of past events?

The very nature of the universe, ruled as it is by chaos and uncertainty, suggests that complete understanding is always beyond our grasp. On the other hand, the way in which patterns emerge and re-emerge gives us a means by which to understand earlier generations. Who were they? What did they want? How did they think? There are crucial differences between them and us, and yet we're much more alike than not.

Stoppard's script never condescends to beating us over the head with the points he makes and the ways in which he connects the dots. Rather, Stoppard outlines and suggests, letting his mathematical musings provide a skeleton, but the meat of the play remains with its cast of characters: seducers, hermits, madmen, geniuses. They are recognizable in any age, whether jotting steamy letters with a quill or declaiming with an iPad in hand. The truth that Stoppard's play revolves around has less to do with the fact that time has an arrow than with the hearts that arrows pierce, and with the universal dilemma of how intellect can elevate us and yet also invite insufferable arrogance, while love and desire can make us craven.

Director Daniel Morris understands all this and allows the play's subtleties to remain subtle, while its comedy shines. Morris has a first-rate cast to work with: There is not a weak link or uncertain performance to be seen in this ensemble.

The production itself is kept simple, which is a wise choice. This is a play that offers so much substance that it needs no distractions; there are ideas galore, and the spare set serves both the production's theater in the round presentation and the director's spot-on decision to keep things from getting unnecessarily busy.

"Arcadia" marks the start of Bad Habit Productions' fifth season, and it's a strong, smart, rousing start that bodes well -- more than well -- for the season's two upcoming productions, "And Neither Have I Wings to Fly" (the New England premiere of the Ann Noble play, slated for November), and "Much Ado About Nothing," a Shakespearean chestnut that the company promises will be served up "with a twist." Personally, after seeing the new season's outstanding inaugural effort, I can't wait.

"Arcadia" continues through Aug. 28 at the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 527 Tremont Street in Boston's South End.

Tickets cost $18 if purchased online (www.bostontheatrescene.com) or via telephone (617-933-8600). Tickets may also be purchased at the door for $23.

Performance schedule: Saturday, Aug. 20, at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 21, at 2:00 p.m. (talkback to follow); Thursday, Aug. 25, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 26 and Saturday, Aug. 27, at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 28, at 2:00 p.m.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


Comments on Facebook