by K. Koenig
When I sat down last Saturday in the 1078 Gallery to watch Rogue Theatre’s presentation of Tom Stoppard’s, Arcadia, it had been quite some time since I’d read the play. I did, however, vividly remember one exchange from the opening scene. Thomasina Coverly (Ashley Garlick), a young woman ahead of her time and treading the edges of God’s province with her mathematical theories, describes how jam, once it’s mixed into rice pudding, cannot be separated from the pudding by stirring backwards. The mixing is a one-way street. This image of inevitability stuck with me, defining the play in my memory.
Yet, what struck me while watching the play unfold through the performances of an incredibly strong cast under the direction of Amber Miller, was not inevitability, but complexity. Physicist Nassim Haramein contends that what we believe to be solid makes up only .00000001% of the universe. Which makes complete sense when we watch Bernard Nightengale (Joe Hilsee), an excitable academic, invent an entirely new explanation for Lord Byron’s flight from England, based solely on an annotation from a game book, the sales slip for a book of poetry, and the textual analysis of several reviews. What he wants to believe shapes what he sees.
The same is true of historian Hannah Jarvis (Hilary Tellesen), especially in the moment when she confuses the figure of a hermit drawn into a landscape sketchbook for effect with the portrait of an actual hermit. As a side note, Tellesen’s small touches added a great deal of humanity to Hannah’s character, which might otherwise be so driven as to be completely unsympathetic.
In fact, Thomasina’s judgement of Fermat’s theorem as a joke “to make us all mad,” might also apply to the seeming conclusiveness of Stoppard’s play, which follows its own heat consumption path to a somewhat chilling resolution. Yet, Stoppard’s layering of passions, storylines, timelines, math theorems, philosophical inquiry, and Romantic poetry, is masterful throughout, as is the overlapping nature of the conversations, which allow for one misunderstanding after another. Wit is the consistent thread throughout, the jam slowly mixing into and staining the rice pudding pink.
While Rogue Theatre’s staging of Arcadia has unfortunately finished its run, if you enjoy the challenge of a play that mixes wit and madness, that parallels multiple characters in two eras, and whose characters debate the nature of God and limitations of science, you’ll love Stoppard’s play. Like Fringe, Arcadia is where scientific study and historical research consistently fall short of explaining the universe, because they cannot account for the vagaries of the human heart.