“Arcadia” begins with thirteen year-old Thomasina Coverly (Meghann Tabor)asking her tutor Septimus Hodge (Chris Woolsey) the meaning of the term “carnal embrace.” Hodge replies essentially that the word carnal is derived from the Latin “carne” meaning meat and it is therefore referring to an embrace with a “side of beef” or “leg of mutton.”
From this opening dialog playwright Tom Stoppard is creating an atmosphere of inquiry and humor. He is sending a message that though this may be challenging at times, we are going to have fun with it.
The action takes place around a table in an historic and aristocratic English manor house in which there are two intersecting story lines set roughly two hundred years apart.
Thomasina and Septimus are living in the house around 1809 in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment and during a period when Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom (Megan DeLay), is supervising the redesign of the formal gardens with the help of landscape architect Noakes (Nicole Hand).
Together they are transitioning it from the previously popular, idealized utopian or “Arcadian” style to the more current Gothic style of the time which championed the beauty of imperfection over perfection.
The alternate story line, set around 1990, follows a house full of academics who are friends, family and hangers-on related to the current heir of the manor, Valentine Coverly (Brendan Hutt), a mathematician working on a theory related to identifying a universal principal of statistical prediction, which in his case, is applied to the population of grouse on his estate over time.
Valentine is enamored of Hannah Jarvis (Cameron Feagin) who is onsite writing a history of the estate’s gardens and is particularly interested in the period when it had transitioned to the Gothic style before falling into its current state of decline.
Literary researcher Bernard Nightingale (Scot West) shows up unannounced to share some insight he has found about the possible connection between famed poet Lord Byron and the manor house during the period of the garden’s reconstruction. He is acquainted with Hannah and hopes to encourage her to help with researching what he has found.
At its core this is a comedic drawing room mystery, but it is also a thought provoking exploration of humanity through concepts of truth, chaos versus order, discovery and rediscovery, the meaning of time, and our desire to improve on an already perfect universe.
Time shifting plot lines are a challenging task that is masterfully orchestrated by Stoppard and skillfully conducted by director Ted Hoerl.
The concept of communication over time is further illustrated by the performance itself. Just as the characters are communicating and interacting with each other over time so are Stoppard and Hoerl interacting and communicating in a very meaningful way.
On the surface “Arcadia” seems to be about Nightingale and Jarvis but Thomasina is central. The ingénue played superbly by Tabor is the personification of the unadulterated perfection of the universe.
This is real adult theater that makes you think without being pretentious.
Warning: don’t get bogged down in the math if it is not “your thing” just let it wash over you. There are many bits of information that come together like a 3D puzzle. Take in as much information as you can, beware of the “noise” or unimportant information and let the puzzle emerge.
Get your nerd on and grab your favorite geek to enjoy this performance full of provocative, philosophical questions and allusions to several popular mathematical theories designed to explain the meaning of life and the mystery of the universe.
Indeed, these are heady thoughts, but as Stoppard promised in the opening dialog, it’s all offered with a wink and a laugh.
DETAILS: Tom Stoppard “Arcadia” produced by Promethean Theatre Ensemble is at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through Dec. 16, 2018. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 404-7336 or visit Prometheantheatre.
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