APT’s ‘Arcadia’ is whip smart and extremely funny

Literature and science each has its own language and processes. Overlay one with the other, then, and chances are a frustrating tangle of cross-purposes and misunderstood intent will result.

But sometimes the twain do meet — and literature’s language has rarely better explained science’s secrets than in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which opened recently in the “Up the Hill” theater at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

The 1995 Tony Award-winner for best play crackles with intellect and humor. It’s a complex stew of concepts and characters with colliding intentions. The play serves up some of science’s most complex theories with relative clarity and always in service of the narrative.

Arcadia is a smart play, perhaps the smartest and sharpest of APT’s already sharp season. Its complexities require work on the part of the audience, but playwright Stoppard’s learned hand is there to guide the audience as James Bohnen’s deft direction rapidly pilots his characters through the three-hour-plus production.

The narrative unfolds in two distinct time periods at Sidley Park, an English country house in Derbyshire. The characters from the period 1809–1812 create specific issues the characters from contemporary times try to understand based on notes, reviews and random clues. The interwoven scenarios demonstrate the folly of assumption and facility of scientific method. The time periods alternate before finally coming together quite seamlessly during the play’s climax.

In 1809, precocious teenager Thomasina Coverly (Rebecca Hurd) — with ideas about science and mathematics well ahead of her time — studies with tutor Septimus Hodge (Nate Burger), a friend of the poet Lord Byron, who is an unseen but influential guest in the house. She also wants to understand the term “carnal embrace,” something she has heard and that refers at least in part to liaisons Hodge had with the wife of Ezra Chater (Casey Hoekstra), a third-rate poet and botanist and also a houseguest.

Like Byron, we never see Mrs. Chater, but the two invisible characters successfully drive the action that may have led to Byron’s sudden and unexplained absence from England from 1810 to 1812.

It is Byron’s mysterious disappearance that draws researcher Bernard Nightingale (Jim DeVita) to modern day Sidley Park. The college don hopes household records and assistance from descendants Valentine Coverly (Steve Haggard), a graduate student in mathematical biology, and his sister Chloe (Jennifer Latimore), will help him unravel the mystery and increase his own academic notoriety.

Nightingale also runs into Hannah Jarvis (Colleen Madden), who has taken up residence at Sidley Park to research the historic origins of the estate’s formal gardens. In particular, she is attempting to excavate a rumored hermitage and learn about its likely resident. The two modern-day researchers couldn’t be less alike in style and discipline, and their differences lead to false assumptions and humorous clashes that shake the foundations of the scientific method to its roots.

Stoppard drives the scientific discussion with a series of dichotomies, the most prominent of which is chaos versus order. Both sets of characters exist within the social orders of the day and struggle as the narrative becomes increasingly more chaotic. Other dichotomies — intuition and logic, thought and feeling — create an entropy to which characters try to bring order.

Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is dominated by a long study table that both sets of characters use throughout the play without regard to the incongruity of various props the table holds. Multiple sets of arched windows behind the table complete the set.

Stoppard’s dialogue is informed and clear as discussions focus on Newtonian laws, chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics and other scientific intricacies. Thomasina even explores the concept of fractals as she moves from age 13 to 16 and begins a serious flirtation with her tutor.

But the sharpest dialogue is reserved for APT veterans DeVita, the Byronic romantic, and Madden, the serious if stodgy researcher. Both performers delight in chewing their words and spitting them at each other with abandon. It is a romantic relationship of sorts, but one that never bears fruit in the conventional way.

High marks, too, for Tracy Michelle Arnold as Lady Croom, matron of the 1800s-era Sidley Park, whose wise observation and, especially, discussions with the gardener Richard Noakes (Gavin Lawrence) wrap both the Classicism-versus-Romanticism and the order-amid-chaos discussions in humorous and understandable terms.

In the end, the characters inhabiting Arcadia struggle to bring order and understanding to both the micro and macro levels of life. As Valentine Coverly notes, “In an ocean of ashes, islands of order. Patterns making themselves out of nothing.”

In the case of this play, mathematics is the method by which this order is often achieved. But there are plenty of intellectual and emotional concepts spinning throughout Arcadia with which the characters and the audience are able to work.

Onstage

American Players Theatre is located at 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. For tickets, call 608-588-2361. The last performance of Arcadia is Sept. 24.