Ask Sir Tom Stoppard for a play on the cultural impact of the Laundromat, and you'll get a treatise on the Denver and San Francisco mints, where they make the quarters it takes to run the machines. Tom won't stop there. He'll stick in a bunch of stuff about the composition of D and S series coins and a passage on the price of washtubs in Brussels in 1754. When Stoppard's at full throttle, no stones are left unturned-even those that can't be seen with the naked eye.
Enter Arcadia, his 1993 script about everything from the nature of time and sex to botany in the South Seas. It's loony with the wonders of art and science as seen by an extremely unlikely major character. In fact, Cygnet Theatre's turn at it runs into trouble accordingly; every so often, its pinpoint typecasting and Jeanne Reith's articulate costume designs look static against the range of topics Stoppard wants to address. But throughout it, director Sean Murray holds to his take on Stoppard's intellectual savvy-if you like the live stage as a forum for a meeting through the ages the way Murray does, then, buddy, here's your play.
It's set in Sidley Park, an English manor that alternately serves two places in time. The first comprises a household out of 1809, wherein prodigy Thomasina Coverly (Rachael vanWormer) spouts ideas on mathematics way beyond her 13 years. She's in lofty company here; Lord George Byron, the infamous bon vivant poet and an unseen houseguest, is also friends with Septimus Hodge (Matt Biedel), her tutor. Fade to the present, when writer Hannah Jarvis (Rosina Reynolds) and lit professor Bernard Nightingale (Claudio Raygoza) investigate the lives of a hermit on the 19th-century Sidley Park grounds and of Byron himself. Eventually, with the help of Thomasina's kin, they'll discover an important set of circumstances that swirled about Sidley Park in 1809.
Stoppard takes the long way around-the play runs two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. But there's a magical ensemble culture at work here that neither the length nor the ploddy subject matter can dampen. VanWormer's as absolutely full of life in her part as I've ever seen her, and Reynolds and Raygoza take off the gloves and leave them there-such is the undercurrent of envy that drives their characters' interactions. Let the lofty science act as a means and not an end; you'll discover an overwhelming sense of fun here, a kindly nod to our mortality and its insignificance in the scheme of things.
“Believe in God,” Hannah urges, “the soul, the spirit, the infinite; believe in angels, if you like; but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book, I can wait-but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.” Wow!
The show's PR package doesn't mention one critical fact-that Augusta King, one of Byron's daughters, helped develop the analytical engine, said to be a predecessor to today's computers. That is a huge real-life connection to this story, one that would set Stoppard on his wallet if it hasn't already. It would take today's computers to make sense of Thomasina's gnarly mathematical theories, and that's just the kind of distinction in time that Arcadia seeks to blur. This show talks a good game, fueled by Stoppard's bottomless curiosity and joy about the world around him. It may be a demanding piece, but that doesn't make it a bad one.
This review is based on the performance of July 6. Arcadia runs through July 29 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $27-$32. 619-337-1525.
On his way to immortality, William Shakespeare cranked out the occasional stinkfest. While his The Two Gentlemen of Verona isn't quite one of them, it does have trouble getting off the ground, its initial scenes disunited amid lack of cadence and character interdevelopment. And then there's Measure for Measure, whose interminable showdown over sex between two central figures drains a lot of the story's potential as a black-comedy milestone.
These plays are the second and third entries in The Old Globe Theatre's Shakespeare summer rep program. The stuttery Two Gents has a couple best friends in a very Shakespearean to-do over love, and the dour Measure puts a pretty public face on private passion-but in neither work does Bill make as convincing a case for the main characters as he does for the people at their flanks. Stephanie Fieger is remarkable as Measure's beleaguered Isabella, and the shows certainly come from honest places within directors Matt August and Paul Mullins, respectively. I do recommend them, but I didn't, like, wet my pants over either one.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs through Sept. 20 at The Old Globe Theatre's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre; Measure for Measure plays through Sept. 28 at the same venue. $45-$62. 619-23-GLOBE.