Algorithms, Eggheads and Love Make `Arcadia' Glow

By Pressley, Nelson | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 20, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Algorithms, Eggheads and Love Make `Arcadia' Glow


Pressley, Nelson, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Tom Stoppard, author of such intellectual whimsies as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" and "Travesties," is often accused of writing plays for the mind, not the heart. Yet the unapologetically cerebral "Arcadia," which opened Wednesday night at Arena Stage (and is easily Arena's best show of the year), is giving off a very satisfying emotional glow.

"Arcadia" is a play about physics and love, to put it broadly. The setting is an English manor called Sidley Park, and the time is the early 19th century, when a very bright 13-year-old girl named Thomasina Coverly is wondering why science can't describe the future.

She also is asking about "carnal embrace" and getting varied answers from her tutor, Septimus Hodge - who has been caught in such an embrace with the wife of a very bad poet named Ezra Chater, whose book Septimus is reviewing for a local newspaper.

"Arcadia" also is set in the late 20th century - still at Sidley Park - where Bernard Nightingale, a comically vain English professor, is pursuing a theory that Lord Byron not only wrote savage reviews of the works of Ezra Chater, but also killed Chater in a duel before fleeing England. To verify the theory - or at least to get enough material to publish - Nightingale has to go through researcher Hannah Jarvis, who is studying Sidley Park for her own reasons.

Hannah, played with strident assurance by Christina Haag, is loved by Valentine Coverly, who is using iterated algorithms to study the ups and downs of the grouse population. The algorithm business gets a few solid minutes of stage time, and it's fascinating. This is Mr. Stoppard's red meat: How does the world work? How can we describe life?

Of course, the hunt for the fluctuations of the grouse population is completely arcane, as is the question of whether Byron shot Chater. Mr. Stoppard knows this, and that's why the ingeniously plotted "Arcadia" is essentially a comedy (and often a very funny one).

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