Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Tom Stoppard can be a problematic playwright. While his brilliance is undeniable, his shows can be tough slogs through encyclopedic swamps of (not always compelling) information. However, Arcadia, arguably his masterpiece, boasts a perfect balance of math, history, satire, love, sex, compassion, humor, ego, and witty repartee. It demonstrates, in a fascinating, funny, and heartbreaking three hours, that humans' ability to understand anything (particularly each other) can be severely limited by their circumstances, prejudgments, and, well, humanity.

The plot can't really be done justice in less than a few hundred words, but, in brief: Arcadia takes place in the same room in the early 1800s and the late 1900s. In the early 1800s, the gawky, insatiably curious, child genius, Lady Thomasina, is being tutored by Septimus Hodges, who is smart enough to recognize her genius but not quite smart enough to understand her discoveries. In the 20th century, academicians are trying to understand the people in the 19th through the clues/detritus they left behind: notebooks, poetry, blueprints, letters. Multiple assignations are carried out, much plotting is done, discoveries--correct and incorrect--are made, and enough funny lines are said to fill a dozen plays written by ordinary mortals (for example: "Her chief renown is for a readiness that keeps her in a state of tropical humidity as would grow orchards in her drawers in January").

The recent production of Arcada at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, did full justice to this wondrous work. It would be lovely if someone brought it to New York.

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