It isn’t that often we see a play by Tom Stoppard produced in town, especially not one as complex and clever as Arcadia, now onstage at the Cook Theatre in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production. In fact, the last time I remember seeing Arcadia, more than 20 years ago, it was—in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production.
It makes for a strong opportunity for the MFA students—and the audience—to work their mental muscles, as it’s a cerebral treat that may, at times, leave some grasping to catch up in its exploration of math, science, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the quaint English customs of landscape design and hermits. Let alone that Stoppard takes us back and forth in time between 1809 or thereabouts and the present day (the play was first produced back in 1993).
The curtain opens on an aesthetically pleasing design (set by Jeffrey Weber) of a room on the Coverly estate, where young, bright student Thomasina (Carla Corvo) seems to be stumping her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Creg Sclavi) with a question about “carnal embrace.” That’s only one of several ways Thomasina, the daughter of the domineering Lady Croom (Alex Pelletier) displays her precocity; before long she’s working out complicated math equations for her tutor and us, all while trying to guess at the relationship between Septimus and the unseen, randy Mrs. Chater, whose husband, a would-be poet (Marc Bitler), is alternately fuming at her betrayal and bathing in Septimus’ compliments about his latest work.
Soon the 21st century enters in the persons of the Coverly descendants, Chloe (Jillian Cicalese), Valentine (Michael Judah) and the silent Gus (Brian Ritchie), whose home at the estate is invaded by bickering scholars, the driven Hannah Jarvis (Amber McNew) and the cocksure Bernard Nightingale (Jonathan Grunert). Each is looking to dig up some juicy family history; in the case of Nightingale it’s something to do with Lord Byron and a duel. He’s chasing glory, but not necessarily 100 percent authenticity, with his research.
Stoppard delivers plenty of amusing dialogue; Lady Croom especially has lines that stem from traditional drawing room comedy. But while he entertains, he’s also zooming around such seemingly esoteric topics as determinism, the population biology of grouse, chaos theory and the heat death of the universe. Yeah, it’s packed.
To Stoppard’s credit, even while covering so much intellectual ground he doesn’t fail to involve us with his characters, especially Thomasina and Hodge. There are hearts involved here as well as minds, especially as the play nears its end.
And to the cast’s credit, under the direction of James Dean Palmer (and while wearing some appealing period costumes by Sofia Gonzalez), they don’t stumble on their way through explicating Stoppard’s denser ideas. They inhabit their worlds, whether then or now, with plausibility and passion, bringing their characters to vivid, colorful life.
At nearly three hours running time (with intermission), Arcadia is challenging, and demands the commitment of audiences as well as its cast. But it’s worth it to take a most unusual journey through time and human curiosity. As Hannah says, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
Arcadia continues through Nov. 18; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.