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As Septimus Hodge says, “When we have found all the meanings and lost all the mysteries, we will be alone, on an empty shore.” Every meaning is properly discovered by a thoughtful performance of “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s comedic masterpiece, which will run at the Loeb Ex through April 12. The play deals with topics as large as the uncertainty of history, determinism, and entropy, but the tension between order and disorder in the play does not extend to this crisp production.
The themes and structure of “Arcadia” are complex: set in two alternating time periods at the same estate in the English countryside, the play is split between 1809 and 1989, cutting between two independent casts of characters who cohabit the same elegantly designed room. In the earlier setting, the story centers on the dialogue of the tutor Septimus Hodge (Jonah C. Priour ’09) and his pupil Thomasina Coverly (Sara L. Wright ’09). Several extramarital affairs, one Romanticism-satirizing landscape remodeling, and the fleeting appearance of Lord Byron at the manor comprise the basic machinations of this plot. The modern setting focuses on Hannah Jarvis (Olivia A. Benowitz ’09) and Bernard Nightingale (Chris J. Carothers ’11), bickering academics studying the events of 1809 and looking to make big discoveries while sifting through the manor’s paper refuse. The experiences and histories of these two stories slowly begin to dovetail into each other until the present seems able to reach back in time to pull out the relevant curios its scholars need. This strange connection is mysteriously literalized by Gus Coverly (Jason R. Vartikar-McCullough ’11), the gifted but socially handicapped resident of the modern household who is able to converse with its past inhabitants.
Given such a complex assembly of characters, time periods, and references, one of the play’s potential dangers is that a performance can easily become mired in weighty pondering, losing the play’s comedy and energetic pace. However, in the hands of a competent cast, the richness of the play becomes a great asset.
The intellectual sparring between Priour’s tutor and Wright’s pupil runs the gamut from Shakespearean allusions to iterated algorithms but is made human by two sensitive and intelligent performances. Every erudite punchline is properly parsed out and correctly timed; neither of them miss a beat. Their relationship becomes more serious as the play progresses, but their connection is handled subtly and without sentimentality, successfully drawing more complex portraits of the characters without sacrificing their charms.
In the modern setting, the absurdity of modern academia produces plenty of comedic material, pitting Carothers’ self-serving histrionics against Benowitz’s scholarly disdain to great effect. The academic battle—between Nightingale’s reckless desire to publish his somewhat baseless conjectures about Byron and Jarvis’ pointed objections—never forsakes the intellectual high ground, but a mastery of the material allows the performance to continue on without ever seeming forced.
In Carothers’ hands, Nightingale’s recitation of his prospective lecture concerning the history of Byron at the manor manages to maintain an academic disposition as it also spins off wildly into self-parody. Nightingale and Valentine Coverly (Charlie E. Riggs ’10, who is also a Crimson editorial writer) provide thoughtful anchors for the play, ruminating on all of Stoppard’s weighty subjects while also being able to interject a barb when the opportunity arises.
It’s remarkable that Stoppard’s play, first performed in 1993 at the dawn of the computer era, does not seem dated by the exponential leaps in technology that have occurred since that date. Stoppard frequently uses the computer as an analogue to the themes of entropy and complexity, and in an age when computers have become so thoroughly integrated into every aspect of life, this sort of philosophizing might seem stale or platitudinous. But those involved in this production have taken great care to make sure every moment of Stoppard’s play comes to life, revealing that beneath what might appear as artifice, it is not simply complex for the sake of being complex.
Every performance and every thought-out word come together to create a shifting and uncertain world, split between past and present.
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