By David A. Rosenberg
The dazzling verbal dexterity of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” features two time periods, an aborted duel, adultery, jealousy, questionable research and a centuries old tortoise named, in delicious contradiction, Lightning, an eternal metaphor for life’s continuity. The sparkling revival at Yale Rep is, in a way, an erudite companion piece to another play about eternity, Our Town, playing down the road at Long Wharf.
“Arcadia” is dense with riffs on thermodynamics, mathematics, determinism, free will, knowledge, literature, the differences between classical order and romantic chaos -- and gardens. But don’t be frightened: it is as immersed in sex and seduction as it is in loftier topics.
Bracing and unpredictable, the work gallops along at Yale, despite its three-hour running time, thanks to director James Bundy. Emphasizing the balance between philosophy and eroticism, Bundy combines ideas with insights into the human heart.
In 1809, in Lady Croom’s stately home, Sidley Park, Derbyshire, England, Thomasina, 13, is being tutored by the dashing Septimus, 22, who attempts to shield his pupil from adult matters by having her solve Fermat’s Theorem..
Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.
Actually, the carnality involves Septimus and the wife of a minor poet, Ezra Chater, who challenges the younger man to a duel. That bit of inconvenience is avoided by Septimus’ flattering Chater about his work, which Septimus truly detests.
Switching to the present day, we encounter two scholars, Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, clashing over what really happened so many years ago. Was there a duel? If so, could one of the adversaries be the famous Lord Byron who was a guest at the time? What about the hermitage on the property? Who was the hermit who dwelled there, assuming there was one? And what was all the fuss about converting the gardens from formal classicism to free-flowing romanticism? Could it have something to do with the conflict between intellect and passion?
Amidst all this, Stoppard amusingly has his characters wonder about the nature of the universe. It must have to go forward: after all, once liquid is dissolved, it cannot be undissolved. That is, once something happens, it cannot be undone. Additionally, liquids lose, not gain heat when left alone. Thus all civilization shall end up at room temperature or, more likely, cold. Our candles will go out. (Much is made of fire in the scenes that take place in earlier times.).
Stoppard makes scholarly pursuit as intense as chasing potential partners around a table. What this production doesn’t do, however, is find the underbelly of tragedy and sadness.
This may be due, paradoxically, to a lack of self-consciousness. The splendid actors do not “know” they’re playacting. Frolicking within the grace of Adrian Martinez-Frausto’s set, Grier Coleman’s costumes and Caitlin Smith Rapoport’s lighting, they go about their business with nary a “look-at-me” moment.
Stephen Barker Turner makes the pompous Bernard almost likable, while René Augesen’s Hannah is as wry as she is dedicated to her thesis. Their ancestral counterparts, Tom Pecinka’s Septimus and Rebekah Brockman’s Thomasina subtly suggest growing mental and physical attraction, with Jonathan Spivey edging the easily-flattered Chater with dollops of egotism and need.
Stoppard’s work champions the idea that life is random at the same time it’s continuous. Yale’s production seamlessly ties up the strands in a package both eloquent and elegant.