Tom Stoppard’s work is well-known for its expansive trappings and masterful language.
Its spirited form can be appreciated and luxuriated in at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s staging of Stoppard’s Arcadia -- one of the playwright’s best -- riffing on the nature of truth and knowledge over the passage of time and working out the conflicts between emotion and intellect, art and science, and love and sex.
Arcadia whirls us around all these boundless territories of heady ideas while we’re entertained by the farcical goings-on of two groups of winsome characters set in different centuries, playing out parallel dramas.
The play is set in an English country house in the years 1809-1812 and 1989, juxtaposing the activities of two modern scholars and the house's current residents with the lives of those who lived there 180 years earlier.
In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is a child prodigy with ideas about mathematics well ahead of her time, naively approaching theories on chaos and thermodynamics. She studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron who spends his efforts challenging his pupil and balancing his relationships with assorted guests of the house (including an overly solicitous wife), and Thomasina’s vivaciously droll mother, Lady Croom.
In 1989, a writer and an academic converge on the house obsessed with the past and lives lived: Hannah Jarvis is investigating a hermit who once lived on the grounds and Bernard Nightingale, a professor of literature, is investigating a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their investigations unfold, successively assisted and impeded by the present-day inhabitants of the house, the truth about what happened in 1809 is gradually revealed.
In appraising the relationship between past and present, in the words of director Aaron Posner, “the play asks us to consider the nature of connections between people, between ideas, and even between different modes of understanding.”
The dialogue is demanding, but the cast, featuring Holly Twyford as Hannah, Erin Weaver as Thomasina, Cody Nickell as Septimus, Eric Hissom as Bernard and Suzanne O’Donnell as Lady Croom deliver it brilliantly, with gusto, imbuing their characters with genuine warmth and humor. Weaver and Hissom are especially fun to watch: Weaver plays the puckish Thomasina with aplomb, fully using her delivery and body to convey each impulsive discovery; Hissom, too, is encouraged to go over the top, spewing and plotting with amped-up boffo zeal.
Nickell plays Septimus seriously as the romantic lead, straddling both realms of head and heart, a man of learning who “dips his pen” regularly in the erotic. O’Donnell’s matriarch of the house is a delight, an early nineteenth century version of Will & Grace’s Karen Walker, storming around the set, casting off contempt at her inferiors while engaging in sundry affairs.
Shifting between the dawn of the Romantic era and the near-present, both narratives play out on a single set, in a posh library naturally, for a play concerned with the seeking of knowledge. Daniel Conway’s set and Kate Turner-Walker’s costumes are augustly executed while the Folger itself acts as the perfect proscenium for viewing the play.
Arcadia tinkles like a minuet over a wide array of subjects, including mathematics, physics, thermodynamics, landscape design, literature, epistemology, academia, and even South Pacific botany, and while scattershot references to The Castle of Otranto and the “style of Salvatore Rosa” are great fun, the heart of the play lies in lines like “it’s the wanting to know that makes us matter,” and “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”
See Arcadia, and witness Stoppard’s magic show: where ideas shimmer, knowledge is sex, and people birth enlightenment.
Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Aaron Posner. Through June 21 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit http://www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.