Stoppard Making Sense

Newtonian physics, time versus eternity, the glories of landscape architecture, and sex. English playwright Tom Stoppard doesn't mess with the small stuff in Arcadia; he's looking for the Big Picture and what it all means. Whether he's looking in the right place--the world of science--is open to debate. But at least he's looking, and it's the search itself that enlivens this unusually cerebral work.

The Denver Center Theatre Company has taken a bit of a risk with Arcadia, which is billed as a romantic comedy but expects its audience to follow a challenging series of intellectual concepts. There are some definite problems, both with Stoppard's script and with the production--the science and history lessons can tend to drag, and every time the action pops into the twentieth century, the stage goes dead. Stoppard, though, still manages to entertain. Plenty of human tomfoolery swirls around the play's central ideas, and people will make asses of themselves, no matter how intelligent they are.

Two separate but linked stories unfold during the course of the play, one set in the nineteenth century, the other in the twentieth. Both take place in the garden room of Sidley Park, an estate in Derbyshire, England. The first scene introduces us to a brilliant fourteen-year-old math prodigy named Thomasina Coverly and her dashing young tutor, Septimus Hodge. Ever wonder what happened to female geniuses in past centuries? Stoppard shows us how they passed unnoticed into the ashes of history. During the course of the play, Thomasina will blossom into young womanhood, discover the second law of thermodynamics and chaos theory 175 years before anyone else, fall in love and--we learn in the twentieth-century storyline--burn to death the night before her seventeenth birthday. Meanwhile, her mother will seduce Lord Byron, sleep with Septimus and hypocritically throw a third-rate poet, Ezra Chater, out of the house as punishment for his wife's slutty behavior.

Stoppard shifts the scene abruptly from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century and then back again. The modern scenes comment on the 1809 doings as historian Bernard Nightingale searches Sidley Park's extensive library for evidence that Lord Byron killed Chater in a duel. Like so many historians before him, Nightingale is on the wrong track, and the whole modern sequence is really a kind of mystery in which Nightingale and another historian, Hannah Jarvis, search for truth. Both miss it, though they uncover fragments that inspire them. After Hannah finds the young Thomasina's drawings and journal, Thomasina's twentieth-century cousin, also a brilliant scientist, studies the equations and comes to realize just what a genius the teenager was. But the rest of the world will never know or care.

For the uninitiated, all the scientific jargon--including a lengthy discussion of entropy--can be mystifying. But the point Stoppard is making about the cosmos is not: It may not have any intrinsic meaning (read: God) in his view, but the search to understand it is exciting and wonderful, maybe even all we can hope for.

Though the two stories here intertwine, they're far from equal. The 1809 tale is full of the promise of youth and the joys of learning and love. Thomasina is innocent, her genius uncomplicated by ego. She and Septimus, rogue though he is with the adult ladies, are truly unique--brilliant, loving, graceful. They commune on a plane no one else can reach, and their genuine delight in each other delights the viewer. The petite Stephanie Cozart looks and acts exactly like a brilliant teen and moves like a petal on a breeze. Douglas Harmsen is perfect as Septimus--he's a handsome version of Tim Roth, with just a touch of Gary Oldman. Anthony Powell gives another amusing performance as the cuckolded poet, and Carol Halstead as Thomasina's mother is charming, funny and formidable.

The modern episodes don't fare nearly as well. In fact, despite a terrific cast, rigor mortis sets in each time the play shifts forward in time. Except for Valentine the scientist (played with sensitivity and intelligence by Mark Rubald), all the modern characters are jaded, cynical and rather despicable. They have no special ground of communion, no selfless admiration or ambition: They are, in short, bores. Not even Jamie Horton and Jacqueline Antaramian can do much to resuscitate this material.

There's a reason for this stark contrast, of course. Stoppard wants us to feel the joy of authentic, original discovery in the nineteenth century and to appreciate the tragedy of great minds locked in a time that cannot value them properly. It's clear early on that he's also commenting on the fleeting quality of history, using his fumbling twentieth-century historians to suggest that we can't really know what went on in the past. The trouble is, we hardly ever know what's going on in the present, either, and that's still no reason to write boringly about pedantry.

Despite the energy-eating nature of the modern bits, the play ends with a piece of bittersweet irony that quite defies Stoppard's usual existential cynicism. It's an oddly uplifting parting scene that leaves us feeling that we have learned something important about life--and about living it as consciously as possible.

Arcadia, through November 10 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

 
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