Directed by Kim Mancuso
Performed by MIT Dramashop
Little Kresge Theater
Feb. 6–8 and Feb. 13–15 at 8 p.m.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia pairs the parallel stories of teenaged Thomasina Coverly (Keenan A. Sunderwirth ’14) and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Garett W. Schulte ’17) in an early 19th-century England in Sidley Park, and follows Hannah Jarvis (Katherine A. Roe ’14) in modern day. While Thomasina investigates determinism and physics near the turn of the century, Hannah uncovers the identity of Sidley Park’s mysterious hermit.
During the first act, Thomasina is revealed to be a prodigy, imagining equations and intuiting an explanation of entropy, despite remaining comically misinformed about “carnal embrace”.
Meanwhile, in the present, Bernard Nightingale (Trevor J. Mulchay ’15) visits Sidley Park and attempts to convince Hannah to help him research a book autographed to Septimus. He believes the book is the key to proving that an Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater (Neil Fitzgerald ’14), a minor poet. In the process, Hannah begins to research the inhabitants of Sidley Park, particularly Thomasina.
By the second act, the two story lines begin to converge, and characters from both periods share overlapping scenes.
Arcadia certainly poses grand, contradictory theories about the relationship between sex (and love) and academia. In some scenes it postulates that sexual knowledge is the antithesis of academic endeavors, only to later suggest that love is all that is left to us in a dying, chaotic universe.
But the play also includes many hilarious puns and double entendres. The gap between the intelligence of characters like Septimus and the dense Mr. Chater, as well as Bernard’s posturing and Hannah’s perceptiveness work together to set up riotous jokes.
I particularly enjoyed scenes set in the earlier period featuring Thomasina and Septimus. The richness of their language made their scenes funny and serious by turns without losing focus on the major themes of the play. Sunderwirth and Schulte carefully modulate their buoyant energy throughout the performance, keeping their repartee sharp throughout their evolving relationship.
Many of the present-day scenes from the first act seemed belabored, because most of the tension in these sections revolved around Bernard’s misinformed investigation of the book, a topic almost completely explained earlier scenes.
To be clear, this is Stoppard’s fault. Roe did an excellent job highlighting the humor found in the occasionally pretentious text, but the first half of the play still contained several monologues that harped on the Stoppard’s tired theories, and criminally understated some of the more interesting parallels between the centuries. In the second act, overlapping scenes removed this problem, and the play flowed more smoothly.
Overall, Arcadia runs about 3 hours, including an intermission. While this is a significant commitment, the cast of Dramashop makes this investment both worthwhile and hilarious. During the quiet, painful conclusion of the play, I wanted to watch Thomasina and Septimus’s last embrace again and again, wishing that the universe wouldn’t be quite so chaotic.