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Theater Review:

The Hypocrites’ "ARCADIA" at The Viaduct


Tom Stoppard has never been content to merely play with language. Instead he prefers to wring the lifeblood out of it by conjoining sexual energy, academic theorizing and human nature to the point of unrelenting brain drain. Nowhere does such inexhaustible intermingling of forms and ideas occur with so much intellectual exactitude than in Stoppard’s 1993 cranium twister, "Arcadia" – receiving a stimulating but sporadically unfocused production by The Hypocrites at The Viaduct.

But, within the script’s overgrowth of big and unruly ideas, a vigorous emotional energy emerges. In "Arcadia," Stoppard distorts time and explores emotion through mathematical equations by way of a verbose script (at times, too in love with its clever historical expanse) that reads like a dramatic algorithm.

Director Sean Graney, an expert at imbuing complex scripts with an unpretentious and slightly quirky sense of open-endedness, crafts a lucid dramatic environment that merges humor and curiosity with a devastating sense of loss. Yet he is more successful in achieving this balance in the historic scenes. The modern ones have a false, almost farcical, ring to them – accounting for this production’s uneven tone.

"Arcadia" opens in 1809 on the English country estate of Sidley Park, where teenage mathematical prodigy Thomasina Coverly is receiving lessons in calculus and copulation from her semi-rakish tutor, Septimus Hodge. More characters descend, debating botany, Newton and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, while Hodge’s fling with poet Ezra Chater’s wife leads to elaborate and erotic discussions of landscape architecture. (Who else but Stoppard could link geometry with sex so seamlessly in describing the act as "a perpendicular poke in the gazebo"?)

The scene shifts to present-day life at Sidley Park, where modern scholars Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightengale are trying to unravel the Coverly family history of 1809 –connecting it to Lord Byron, the Age of Reason and "the nervous breakdown of the Romantic imagination." The garden is the epicenter of heated debate. Time continues to shift back and forth until the generations merge into their own unpredictable destiny.

In this sense, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – that disorder will increase until all energy is dissipated and all light and life are extinguished – comes urgently into play. Patterns resurface and intersect on a heightened plane of deductive thought.

The Hypocrites have provided a thorough and artfully presented visual glossary – ranging from physics to landscape painting – for audiences to peruse at the back of the theater. It further immerses viewers into Stoppard’s unstoppable curiosity about all aspects of the human condition – giving equal weight to the head and the heart.

On stage, the most invigorating scenes are those between Mechelle Moe’s eternally inquisitive Thomasina and John Byrnes’ quietly impassioned Septimus. Their opening scene – including several minutes in candlelit silence – delicately sets up Stoppard’s dichotomies (and ultimate merging) of intellectual enlightenment and unbridled romantic desire as sexual tension entwines around their distracted book reading.

Moe’s and Byrnes’ characters also maintain a consistency of character while undergoing subtle but pivotal changes in their heady and heartfelt lives. Mary Hampson Patterson as Thomasina’s sensual mother, Lady Croom, is elegantly flirtatious but her delivery, at times, is too soft. Will Schutz captures fretful poet Ezra Chater’s giddy, self-absorbed mood shifts.

The moderns, however, don’t experience those same inextricable connections of their historic figures of fascination. While Donna McGough delivers a cool-headed star turn as determined scholar Hannah, the usually multifaceted Don Bender is too comically suave and bungling as her rival, Bernard. Jennifer Grace as 18-year-old libido-conscious Chloe Coverly also suffers from a similar farcical fate.

But Steven Wilson truly shows his razor-sharp range as young mathematician Valentine Coverly, whose character most successfully walks that fine line between control and chaos – the sublime mingling of thinking and feeling.•

The Hypocrites’ production of "Arcadia" runs through October 14 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 312-409-5578.
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