Nora Theatre's "Arcadia": Sin Tax?

Kira Patterson & Will Madden in "Arcadia"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair)
The title Et in Arcadia Ego appears to have been first used by the painter Guercino in 1622, with “Arcadia” meaning Paradise and the “Ego” referring to Death, thus perhaps meaning that death is undeniably everywhere. Used as a title for numerous works since, it was the initial title chosen by Tom Stoppard for his play that would ultimately be shortened to Arcadia. In 1993, it won London's Olivier Award as Best Play. In 1995, the Broadway version was nominated for both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and its revival in 2011 was a Tony nominee for Best Revival of a Play. It's now being mounted by Nora Theatre in Central Square in Cambridge. Consisting of thirteen characters (more, if you count a tortoise named Plautus in the nineteenth century, subsequently named Lightning in the present), more than half of the cast appear in the past (1809-1812), the rest in the present, in the same Derbyshire country house, Sidley Park. As with other Stoppard works, rare is there any trivial dialogue, so keen attention must be paid to even the simplest of red herrings of plotting. And, though sure to delight nearby MIT students, there is something ominous, so consider yourself forewarned: there will be math.

And math has consequences; but never fear. Though it delves superficially into such arcana as non-linear math, entropy, iterated algorithms, chaos theory, irregular “fractal” geometry, and the second law of thermodynamics (wait, there was a first one?), all is not lost. They are the product of an ever growing inquisitive mind of one Thomasina Coverly (Kira Patterson), a brilliant thirteen-year-old studying geometry, algebra and Latin with her twenty-two-year-old tutor Septimus Hodge (Will Madden) a friend of (the unseen) Lord Byron, staying at the house. Septimus wishes to concentrate on a work written by the terrible poet Ezra Chater (Alexander Platt), also currently a guest in the house. As will prove to be significant later in the play, Thomasina wants desperately to learn to waltz before her seventeenth birthday. She disproves some Newtonian laws of physics (e.g. time and heat each move in only one direction, and that not all equations are reversible, such as stirring jam into a pudding). As a joke, she draws a hermit on the landscape sketch of the formal garden that is to be made more romantic, even with a hermitage on site. Hodge posits that mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. Thomasina has learned that Chater's wife has been observed in “carnal embrace” with someone (who turns out to have been Septimus). Also on hand are Thomasina's brother Augustus (Max Jackson), her mother, and manager of the Coverly estate, Lady Croom (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), the landscape architect Richard Noakes (Harsh J. Gagoomal), Lady Croom's brother Captain Brice (Jesse Garlick), and the butler Jellaby (Elbert Joseph).

Two centuries or so later, historian Hanna Jarvis (Celeste Oliva) and literature professor Bernard Nightingale (Ross MacDonald) are trying to make sense of the happenings back in the nineteenth century in the house now occupied by postgraduate mathematical biology student Valentine Coverly (Matthew Zahnzinger), his sister Chloe (Jade Wheeler), and younger brother Gus (Jackson again). Hannah and Bernard each has contemporary mangled misinterpretations of the past and its evidence (which only we the audience can see through), the hilarious results of the unknowability of history vs. one's desire for knowledge. Hannah, in the garden digging up a book on hermits, sees Thomasina's drawing as the “only likeness of the hermit” extant, and Bernard incorrectly concludes that Lord Byron was forced to leave the country after he killed another in a duel (based on a book found in the poet's library). At the end of the play, all the characters, then and now, do a merry dance while the universe seems to grow cold, fulfilling Gus' prophecy that “we're all going to end up at room temperature”.

Stoppard is said to have based Thomasina on Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician whose theories anticipated the binary computer. Whether or not this is apocryphal, what is true is that just about everything in this play references another time, with scenes alternating between past and present until they finally warp and overlap, with past and modern characters on stage at the same time. In charge of keeping all these balls in the air is Director Lee Mikeska Gardner, the company's Artistic Director. It's a daunting task, and in less capable hands could have ended up, well, entropic. Fortunately, she and her stellar cast avoid the potential pitfalls of random disarray, somehow making sense of a very complicated and convoluted plot. Virtually all of then are marvelous, with special kudos to Patterson as a totally believable teen, MacDonald with his hilariously vitriolic zealotry, and Zahnzinger with his befuddled commentary. There is an over-the-top fop in Platt, but the part seems to have been written that way. Most strike a perfect balance between sobering social satire and performing with gusto. It makes for an exhausting but enthralling three hours. On the technical side, there is the exacting Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski, modestly impressive Scenic Design by Janie E. Howard, complicated Costume Design by Leslie Held and equally complex Sound Design by Nathan Leigh.

Thomasina alludes to the preeminence of sex (the physical vs. physics). Whatever your spot on the spectrum of opinion on this, Stoppard has a lot to offer you, if you don't allow the play's admittedly erudite and threateningly esoteric nature to undo you. It's unstoppable Stoppard, a master at the top of his game, as they say, having provided a brilliant play enacted here by an equally brilliant ensemble. It leaves us to ponder whether what might be called for is a sin tax on math.

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