The Folger’s Radiant Arcadia: Sexy-Time for Your Brain

Arcadia---1809

Whaddaya mean I’m two years too late for a Borat joke?

This still from Aaron Posner’s brilliant new staging of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Folger wouldn’t make me want to run out and see it, really. But I hope my DCist review will inspire you to do just that. Best thing I’ve seen on a stage in 2009, certainly, and probably going back a goodly while earlier than that. Run, don’t walk.

What, you want more? Okay. Review proper begins after the jump.

Hot for Teacher: Erin Weaver and Cody Nickell get excited about math in Aaron Posner’s new production of Arcadia.

A few years after Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld dominated network television with their “show about nothing,” Tom Stoppard astonished the theatre with a play about everything. More specifically, the mathematical conceits that govern the ultimate predictability of everything. Or don’t. Learned opinion varies about the math.

Not so vis-à-vis the play: Arcadia was hailed as a masterpiece upon its London premiere in the spring of 1993, and time — not to mention a sparkling new Folger Shakespeare Library production helmed by the ever reliable Aaron Posner — has confirmed the rightness of that early verdict. Structurally, Stoppard’s comic-literary-mystery-romance is a luminous jewel, brilliantly reflecting light from every angle. The light in this case being not reason, or not just reason, but all that arises from human curiosity. As literary scholar Hannah Jarvis (Holly Twyford, managing once more to be prickly and endearing simultaneously) puts it late in the evening, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”

The story follows the intellectual and carnal pursuits of two sets of characters occupying the same English country mansion, Sidley Park, in different eras. In 1809, precocious 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly is slacking off from her Latin translations by inventing Chaos Theory, though her wizardy, like Penny Gadget’s, will go unheralded. Her handsome 22-year-old tutor, Mr. Septimus Hodge, is wholly decorous and devoted to her, even as he’s inconvenienced by more complex feelings toward at least two other ladies about the house.

Two centuries later, Jarvis and a rival academic, Bernard Nightingale, scour Sidley’s well-stocked bookshelves for clues as to what happened in the other set of scenes we’re watching. Nightingale wants to make himself famous by proving that Septimus’s oft-discussed, never-seen pal, Lord Byron, killed the author of something called The Couch of Eros in a duel. Hannah, true to form, is quietly working on a less sensationalistic theory. The 19th century scenes alternate with those set in the present day, though character and incident will of course converge across centuries as the evening advances.

Holly Twyford & Eric Hissom

Holly Twyford & Eric Hissom

Stoppard’s scenario is so engrossing, and his characters so easy to like, that the enterprise never feels like a mere platform for the big debates he’s so dexterously woven into it: Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, order v. chaos, art v. science. Yes, it’s all very dense and erudite — it’s Stoppard. The jokes and the references fly like shrapnel, but the effect is exhilarating rather than didactic. Before the evening is half gone, you’ll want to parse the script and hit the rewind button, but if you simply surrender to its benign velocity, you’ll find the production remains firmly focused on the lonely, fallible, mortals giving voice to all this elevated rhetoric. Stoppard’s genius may have held him at a remove in some of his other works, but here, he never stops beckoning us in to marvel at the world’s wonders along with him, or linking the Pursuit of Knowledge to the pursuit of, well, carnal knowledge. Consider:

HANNAH: Sex and literature. Literature and sex. Your conversation, left to itself, doesn’t have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin. One of them is always sex.

BERNARD: Ah well, yes. Men all over.

HANNAH: No doubt. Einstein – relativity and sex. Chippendale – sex and furniture. Galileo -‘Did the earth move?’ What the hell is it with you people?

If the playwright remains the star, Posner’s steady hand is everywhere in evidence, starting with his adept casting of the half-dozen key roles. Cody Nickell’s Septimus keeps us on side as his nurses feelings for both Lady Croom, his employer, and her daughter, his pupil. At no point do you want to stab him. Think that’s easy? Back in the future, Eric Hissom’s Nightengale is brusque and oily enough to alienate his friends, but not nearly enough to make us dislike him. The way he draws out Twyford’s own, more suppressed longings, is an unflashy but keenly observed bit of binary performance.

There are plenty of other examples of these marvelous actors making one another better. Whether it’s Nickell, or Posner, or the beguiling Suzanne O’Donnell (as Lady Croom) who’s due credit for turning the pouring of a cup of tea — a just-the-facts stage direction in the script — into an act of pulse-quickening prurience, well, cheers. We’ll have what they’re having.

Arcadia is at the Folger Shakespeare Library through June 14. Tickets can be purchased here.

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