Review: Tom Stoppard's Brainy 'Arcadia' Gets a Brilliant Treatment at Folger

From left, Cooper D'Ambrose, Erin Weaver, Stephen D'Ambrose, Michael Glenn, Suzanne O'Donnell, Jared Michael Delaney and Cody Nickell in the drama of ideas, which spans two centuries.
From left, Cooper D'Ambrose, Erin Weaver, Stephen D'Ambrose, Michael Glenn, Suzanne O'Donnell, Jared Michael Delaney and Cody Nickell in the drama of ideas, which spans two centuries. (By Carol Pratt)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

The worlds of 1809 and the present day dance with each other as magically in Aaron Posner's new staging of "Arcadia" as they did a decade and a half ago, at the birth of Tom Stoppard's enchanting play.

Assembling a solid cast for Folger Theatre, director Posner remains faithful to the humane underpinnings of the piece, which has an erudition that is not so much intimidating as touching. You leave with a reinvigorated admiration for Stoppard's gifts, for the gratifying warmth with which he paints his characters, for the breadth of ideas he so seductively and amusingly imparts.

Although Posner, artistic director of New Jersey's Two River Theater Company, has been known to impose his own imagination forcefully on Shakespeare -- his inventive "Macbeth" and "Measure for Measure" are perhaps the most impressive productions that Folger has presented in recent years -- he lets Stoppard have his own unobstructed say here. Why tinker, after all, with the elegance of a contemporary voice that tells us almost as much as Shakespeare did about the common plight of the people of this planet?

So what you're served on this evening is a lavishly overflowing platter of the playwright's talents for finding connectivity in, well, everything: Newtonian physics, Byronic poetry, academic charlatanism, the designs of English gardens, the sexual awakening of a teenage girl, Fermat's theorems. Whether you know a single thing about Pierre de Fermat, a father of modern calculus, without first typing in his name on Wikipedia proves irrelevant. Stoppard is laying out these narrative landmarks in service of a larger purpose, of illuminating the poignant, illogical precision of human progress.

The dozen actors form a seamless ensemble, and even those filling the smallest roles are swell. Particularly strong are Erin Weaver, as an aristocratic girl of the 19th century with a surprising, visionary capacity; Holly Twyford, playing a no-nonsense historical investigator; Eric Hissom, in a turn as an academic whose ego drives him to self-destructive stunts; and Cody Nickell, portraying a tutor in the home of Weaver's Thomasina, and who is the unlikely linchpin of events unfolding in both epochs.

Stoppard superbly manages the task of having these two disparate periods speak to each other -- and wittily reveals the ways in which experts' interpretations of events in the past can be wildly off base. (The play suggests that seeing clearly into the past is as tricky as into the future.) It all takes place in Sidley Park, ancestral home of the Coverlys, a wealthy English family in which the primary responsibility of Nickell's Septimus Hodge is educating (in more ways than one) the precocious, scientifically clairvoyant Thomasina.

Set designer Daniel Conway's sturdy conjuring of a great room in the stately home ably serves both the scenes in 1809 and those set two centuries later, when Twyford's Hannah Jarvis, a best-selling writer, takes up residence with the modern-day Coverlys. For a book about hermits, she is trying to uncover the identity of a mysterious guest on the estate in the earlier period, who was known as the Sidley Hermit.

One of the play's marvels is the rich sense of history and personality that every major character projects, and what about them that might seem peripheral turns out to contribute to some essential aspect of "Arcadia." Hissom's buffoonish Bernard, for instance, pursues for fraudulent, self-aggrandizing purposes a bogus hypothesis about events at Sidley Park involving Lord Byron and a duel. But only in the uncovering of his intellectual charade is light shed on what actually happened to the people who passed through the house -- a service that rescues them from eternal obscurity.

Peter Stray provides a fine turn as one of the contemporary Coverlys, a mathematician who, in love with Hannah, helps her to grasp the extraordinary idea that Thomasina was developing about the order of the universe. (This is a work that both romanticizes and makes fun of higher learning.) As Thomasina's mother, Suzanne O'Donnell expertly conveys entitlement, as well as a certain piquant sense of mischief. Weaver, meanwhile, creates a more plaintive duality, as the evening's embodiment of limitless promise, and limited time.

Kate Turner-Walker, the costume designer, handsomely clothes the actors in each era, and Thom Weaver's lighting design is sharp and efficient. You can sense from start to finish how much intelligence the entire creative team brought to this assignment. The program goes so far as to credit a "mathematics consultant," Manil Suri, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. But rest assured: Even if the cast felt the need to bone up on algorithms, you, on this evening of open heart and crackerjack wit, won't have to.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Aaron Posner. Sound, Veronika Vorel; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley. With Jared Michael Delaney, Benjamin Schiffbauer, Cooper D'Ambrose, Stephen D'Ambrose, Michael Glenn, Margo Seibert. About three hours. Through June 14 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit or call 202-544-7077.

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