Nora Theater Brilliantly Combines Science and Desire With Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ (5 Stars)
By Mike Hoban
‘Arcadia’ – Written by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Olivia D’Ambrosio, Assistant Director; Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski; Costume Design by Leslie Held; Choreography by Judith Chaffee. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater at 450 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge through May 15th.
Artistically speaking, Central Square Theatre may be having as good an opening to 2016 as any venue in the region could hope to. Coming on the heels of the Underground Railway Theater’s astonishing production of The Convert to open the year, The Nora Theatre Company has followed up with an outstanding staging of Tom Stoppard’s challenging masterwork, Arcadia. And with New York-based Bedlam (who did last year’s mind-blowing Saint Joan at the same space) coming to Cambridge to perform two different versions of Twelfth Night in repertory in June, it looks like that streak will only continue.
Arcadia is not an easy play to describe, but suffice it to say that it includes large tracts of dialogue on mathematics, physics, and an archeological dig into a possible untold chapter in the life of Lord Byron. If that sounds a little heady, don’t worry. There are equal helpings of scandalous sex and longing to hold the interest of the less academically inclined folks like me, as well musings on how those desires keep any kind of mathematical or scientific construct from being an accurate predictor of what actually goes on in the universe. As the amorous Chloe says to her mathematician brother Valentine in the second of the play’s simultaneous plot threads, “The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said. I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.” Indeed. Nothing like a little misdirected desire to muck up the space and time continuum.
There are actually two stories being told simultaneously during Arcadia. The first is set in 1809 at an English country house in Derbyshire, where Septimus Hodge is tutoring Thomasina, a brilliant but precocious 13 year-old aristocrat (on Fermat’s Last Theorem, no less), when she unexpectedly asks him what “carnal embrace” means. He stammers a bit before cleverly responding, “Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef”. But she quickly learns the true meaning of the phrase when Hodge is challenged to a duel by angry husband Ezra Chater for engaging in “carnal embrace” with his wife in the gazebo the night before. In classic rogue form, Hodge charms his way out of the mess, winning over Chater in the process. The romantic complications of this storyline are both funny and compelling, but are actually secondary to the much deeper one involving Thomasina’s budding genius.
The second story is set around 1990, where the insufferable literature professor Bernard Nightingale descends upon the same country house, looking for clues that Byron spent time at the estate in 1809. He enlists the reluctant help of the aforementioned Valentine (who is researching young Thomasina’s work) as well as the beautiful Hannah Jarvis, a writer pursuing her own theory about the importance of a hermit that may have lived there during that time. There’s also Chloe, who serves mainly as a romantic distraction for Nightingale after he is rebuffed by Hannah. Like the 1809 plot, there is an abundance of unrequited love mixed in with the science and philosophy, but the real fun is in watching the three searchers follow the trails of clues to their not-so-logical (and possibly incorrect) conclusions.
As brilliantly written as this play is, it is also extremely dense, so much so that it requires real work to follow at times. What makes it so worth our time (other than the more easily relatable love angles) is the searing wit unleashed by the characters. When Chater comes to Hodge to challenge him to a duel, demanding “satisfaction” for the egregious insult to his honor, Hodge replies, “Mrs. Chater demanded satisfaction, and now you are demanding satisfaction. I cannot spend my time day and night satisfying the demands of the Chater family.” The work is loaded with comic gems such as that, which keep us on the edge of our seats through the thicker narratives.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner gets tremendous performances from her ensemble, including stage veterans Celeste Oliva as the understandably reserved Hannah; Ross McDonald as the alternately overbearing and explosively angry Nightingale; Sara Oakes Muirhead as Lady Croom; and an amazing turn by fringe favorite Matthew Zahnzinger as the academic Valentine. But it is the performances by a pair of relative newcomers that are most noteworthy. Will Madden at first oozes charm as the lecherous Hodge, then transitions to quiet seething as he loses his prey to his friend Lord Byron, all while maintaining an approriate affection for Thomasina. Kira Patterson, making her professional debut as the undiscovered wunderkind Thomasina, is nothing short of brilliant in the role of the 13 year old, as she manages to maintain her childlike qualities while riffing on complex physics and mathematical subjects without sounding nerdy.
This is not a production for those seeking lighthearted fare, but it is a ‘Don’t Miss’ for anyone who appreciates watching brilliant writing superbly executed. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/arcadia/