I have a thought exercise I sometimes play when I’m killing time. What works of art will be around in a hundred years, or five hundred years? Will movies like Oppenheimer and Barbie be remembered? Will Bob Dylan and Beyonce turn out to be Mozarts or Salieris. One prediction regarding theater: I believe, centuries from now, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (along with his brilliant Hapgood) will be considered a classic.
Like much of Stoppard’s work, Arcadia is incredibly dense. Complex ideas come rapid fire, often too quickly to be fully processed. The play’s structure mirrors its topic of chaos theory, with two parallel stories that play off each other. The first story takes place on an English country estate in the early nineteenth century. Tutor Septimus Hodge (ably portrayed here by Shaun Taylor-Corbett) and his precocious teenage student, Thomasina (the engaging Caroline Grogan), are navigating the transition between post-renaissance classicism and romanticism, as well as the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Thomasina wants Septimus to teach her the things her mother, Lady Croom (a nicely textured performance from Lisa Birnbaum), doesn’t want her to know—such as what carnal embrace is. Septimus tries to balance the competing desires of his boss and his charge.
The other strand of this double helix centers around late-twentieth-century scholars Hannah Jarvis (Zuzanna Szadkowski) and Bernard Nightingale (Elan Zafir). Bernard, a glory-seeking blowhard, thinks he can show events that transpired at Lady Croom’s estate played a crucial role in the life of poet Lord Byron. Hannah is uninterested in the recognition such a discovery might bring–but she wants to know what really happened.
Unlike some of Stoppard’s other work, here the philosophy, scientific ideas, and storyline blend together beautifully, each enhancing the other and creating a whole that is transporting and transformative. In Bedlam Theater’s revival, director Eric Tucker embraces the chaos of chaos theory with glee, turning everything on its head. In one scene, the entire cast passes the props around, a kind of kinetic sculptural free-for-all with no discernable rhyme or reason. Bedlam indeed.
And the chaos is not limited to the stage. Along with set designer John McDermott and lighting designer Les Dickert, Tucker utilizes every inch of the West End Theatre’s space. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costumes help to give the evening a “let’s put on a show” kind of feel, a very different vibe from the play’s more formal American premiere at Lincoln Center almost thirty years ago. It makes for a more playful, relaxed theatrical experience. Stoppard’s wit is laugh-out-loud funny here.
The actors are fine all around. In addition to the aforementioned Taylor-Corbett and Grogan, Randolph Curtis Rand makes an excellent blustery and easily distracted Ezra Chater. In the modern-day sections, Zuzanna Szadkowski and Elan Zafir have a strong repartee as dueling antagonistic scholars. A few lines that go by too quickly to fully understand, but that’s Stoppard. Well, sometimes it’s Stoppard – some moments did feel rushed, like when Hannah Jarvis uncovers Thomasina’s mathematical work. It’s one of the most exciting revelations in the play and it should have landed more of an emotional wallop. Still, overall, this is a worthwhile production of an amazing play.
For Stoppard, Hannah and Thomasina’s pursuit of knowledge is an unadulterated good. There’s a Trump-like quality to Bernard. He’s engaging and attractive but uninterested in truth and therefore contemptible. Similarly, Lady Croom’s pains to keep her daughter in ignorance are both wrongheaded and pointless. And yet, despite Hannah and Thomasina’s best efforts at seeking knowledge, not everything can be known. Ideas, like people, are ephemeral. This is the tragedy of the play, and perhaps of life itself.