My good friend Tom is very much a man of science and mathematics, and also the smartest person I know. I talk with him about all manner of things and while he may have a way of viewing the entire universe in terms of equations and probability, he also sees connections down to art and everyday life. There are layers and links to things. He sees them more clearly than I do.
I bring this up because that ability is something to bear in mind while watching Tom Stoppard's semi-legendary play Arcadia, now onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre. Written by Stoppard in 1993, it's a wonder of ideas and thinking about the universe and humankind and even space and time. This is where I'll stop and say that as cerebral as it may be, do not balk at the thought that it's some sort of pedantic snooze. It's very much the opposite; it's a comedy, and a very funny one. Hell, it's very funny within the very first 45 seconds.
Along with humor, the structure of Arcadia makes it engaging. If anything, the simplicity of its setting and staging helps the slyness of its themes work with greater ease. All of the action takes place in the same room in the country house of Sidley Park in England, alternating between 1809 and the present day. In 1809, Septimus Hodge (David Hamilton) is tutoring young Thomasina Coverly (Kahvi Zvaleko-Garret), the daughter of Lady Croom (a fantastic Caroline McFarland, most recently seen in Richard III and The Hollow). A fairly serious scholar, Septimus is also a bit raffish, the sort of fellow inclined to get in amorous clinches with other men's wives and wind up challenged to a duels at sunrise.
The action shifts (as it does back and forth throughout) to the present day, in the same room, where Hannah Jarvis (Megan Hughes) is a scholar and author researching the house's history. She meets the pretentious (but always with the gift of gab) academic and critic Bernard Nightingale (William English II). Their areas of interest and research, which are focused around and following the year 1809, soon converge.
The time switching is not gimmicky but, in fact, very important, growing more fascinating as things move and pick up speed. Early in the play, Thomasina posits a theorem — an equation that also touches on what we now think of as chaos theory and comes close to a unified explanation of all that happens in every aspect of our perception. Meanwhile, in the present-day scenes, Hannah's apparently-in-name-only-fiancé Valentine Coverly (Evan Needham) begins to see things in Thomasina's work that he finds fascinating in his work as a PhD researcher.
This may sound dense, oblique or dull, but it is none of these. Under Calder Johnson's direction, it is lively and compelling, and it's gradually easy to see where the storyline may (or may not be) leading. The separate time frames become more linked and that's all I can say without spoiling it. My own background, being more of the arts-and-humanities variety, is not one lent to easily understanding matters such as entropy, Newtonian laws and the death of the universe. So rather than get into all that, I'll turn to two performances that make NCRT's Arcadia so memorable: English as Nightingale, whose obsession with things like the minutiae of what Lord Byron did where or when (yup, he comes up in this play a lot, although he remains unseen), starts to reveal a certain arrogance and pomposity in his character. And in Needham's great turn as Coverly, we see a man of science and logic, a person not keen on historical details, gradually coming to see something in young, long-gone Thomasina and her theorem, resulting in one of the most amazing monologues in the play.
The universe is a great big place but it's populated by people willing to cast aside scientific facts in pursuit of anything from an aesthetic ideal to fitting their narrow thesis. It also has people who have made discoveries that defy every previously held idea about scientific laws. And from the pen of Stoppard and in the hands of NCRT's cast, Arcadia is proof that it can be very gripping, quite funny and also the kind of thing you'll still be thinking about the following morning over coffee. A lot.
Arcadia plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Oct. 7, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's funny, saucy assembly of disgruntled Disney heroines, Disenchanted continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through Sept. 30 with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Sept. 24.
Feed me, Seymour. Little Shop of Horrors and its man-eating plant open at Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Sept. 29 through Oct. 29. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.