Court Theatre rarely fails to impress, and their latest production, Tom Stoppard’s landmark play “Arcadia” directed by Charles Newell, is no exception. Shifting back and forth between 1809 and present day England, the play questions the basis of human knowledge and how much humanity can ever know. Dubbed as a “play of ideas,” this Stoppard classic stirs together academic concepts such as Fermat’s last theorem, Newton’s concept of relativity, popular means of interpretation, with the second law of thermodynamics on the side. A little hard to grasp? At times, definitely. Amidst vague allusions to obscure works produced within the Romantic period, Stoppard’s play demonstrates his enormous knowledge and ability to tie seemingly unrelated ideas together through his mastery of the English language. Though some portions may best be described as abstract, lofty, or downright pretentious, Stoppard’s trademark aptitude requires that the audience actively thinks about the inner workings of life rather than watch the show pass by as a mere spectator.
“Arcadia,” appropriately set in an early 19th century English countryside estate under the same namesake, begins with an intimate scene of domesticity and academia as the tutor Septimus Hodge, played by Grant Goodman in his Court Theatre debut, attempts to explain the significance of carnal embrace to his noble pupil Thomasina Coverly, played by Bethany Caputo. The clever pun on words, a characteristic turn by Stoppard, lends to carnal embrace to be described as “the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.” The scenes with Septimus and Thomasina reflect a dynamic between the two characters which on one level is defined as mutual intellectual appreciation, but on the other, one of impossible, unrequited love.
The other intertwined narrative features a present day battle of the academics as all the scholars mentioned ardently labor on their life’s work without truly understanding the larger context within life. Hannah Jarvis, performed by Mary Beth Fisher of last spring’s “Glass Menagerie” fame, obsesses over how scenery, specifically 18th century Romantic gardens in the Derbyshire countryside, returns a message about popular literature and its failure. The Sussex don Bernard Nightingale (Kevin McKillip) can best be characterized as a British version of a slick-haired, fast-talking Bible salesman with intellectual overtones. His standing, based predominantly off his charm and well-honed performative skills, leads him to leak an almost substantially unrehearsed claim that the renowned Lord Byron shot the unknown poet Ezra Chater in a dual over the infamous Mrs. Chater. Playing a minor role is Valentine Coverly, played by Erik Hellman, who, like his former relative, attempts to find a deeper meaning to the universe through mathematical reiterations.
The roller coaster of energy between these three intellectuals provides a clever debate over the importance of knowledge and their struggle to help mankind in progress with their own small contribution. Nightingale bashes science over the head, stating its assumptions renounce any authority it may have. Tom Stoppard’s unmistakable humor shines through Bernard as he describes his intentions towards scientists like Valentine: “I’d push the lot of you over a cliff myself. Except the one in the wheelchair, I think I’d lose the sympathy vote before people had time to think it through.”
The elegant storyline carries the viewer back and forth in a lovely interplay of periods almost seamlessly reflecting each other. The split eras show that the present mimics the past, leaving a similar fingerprint of worries and insecurities. As both sets of characters fight to find a higher realm of truth, their rational facilities are nonetheless subject to their emotions and with that very humanity, they manage to deal with disappointments and successes imparting Tom Stoppard’s simple but beautiful wisdom: “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.”
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through June 10. Tickets and show times vary. For more information, visit http://www.courtheatre.org.