It's easy to believe we're all living on the brink of chaos. Especially after a week in which a commercial airline was shot down and another Gaza incursion began.
Of course, as humans we always believe the best way to control chaos is through knowledge, a charming fantasy we cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And that is the kind of truth that playwright Tom Stoppard is hunting down in the brilliant, mystifying Arcadia, now being produced by the Mamai Theatre Company.
The talented Mamai cast delivers Stoppard's brain-tickling words with musical rhythm and sly wit, under the direction of Christine McBurney. Unfortunately, the brisk musicality of the delivery at times overwhelms the ability of the audience to parse meaning. That, combined with the bedeviling acoustics in this high-ceilinged theater at the Pilgrim Church, means a lot of words are muffled or fly up out of earshot. That makes this challenging play even more difficult to follow.
Stoppard loves to throw around a galaxy of ideas: math, the glory of sex, landscaping, scientific curiosity, the pitfalls of sex, chaos theory, iterated algorithms, and sex. Then he expects his characters, and the audience, to fight and claw to find their way out. The joke is, there is no "out." The pursuit of knowledge is everything, knowledge is nothing. As one character notes, "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore."
It all takes place — in alternating scenes set in 1809 and the present day — around the same table at a hermitage at Sidley Park which, as is noted, is currently missing its hermit. In the long ago time period, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (a sprightly and inquisitive Meghan Grover) is being instructed in algebra by Septimus Hodge.
But Thomasina is a wildly gifted girl and through her drawings and scribblings she soon untangles the basics of thermodynamics and the threads that would lead, a century later, to the discovery of chaos theory and the likely apocalyptic end facing us earthlings. (The play's title comes from a Latin phrase, "Even in Arcadia, there am I," with "Arcadia" meaning utopia and" I" meaning death.)
Also on hand is Ezra Chater (an intense and amusing Stuart Hoffman), a visiting journeyman poet who thinks, correctly, that his wife has been exploring carnal theory with Septimus in the gazebo. The place is lorded over by Lady Croom (Valerie Young in a satisfyingly crisp turn), who knows what everyone is doing.
In present day, the estate is occupied by Hannah Jarvis, a down-to-earth feminist researcher and Bernard Nightingale, an ambitious academic who is pushing a supposed revelation about a murder involving Lord Byron that might have happened at Sidley Park back in 1809.
The young mathematician Valentine Coverly (a wry Scott Esposito) is bored by Nightingale and yet attracted to him. And Valentine eventually susses out the meanings behind the drawings that Thomasina had made, revealing her genius.
Make sense? Of course not. Sense is not Stoppard's goal, it's all about the pursuit: of knowledge, of historical facts, of a really boffo orgasm. And viewed from that perspective, this production offers many delights.
As Nightingale, Christopher M. Bohan pirouettes about the stage in paroxysms of delight as he tries to ferret out a long-ago scandal that few would even care about. And Amy Fritsche brings a neatly creased precision to Hannah, until her veneer is finally penetrated when the inevitability of Thomasina's prediction is absorbed. Jason Kaufman captures a Don Draper-ish kind of upright (in more ways than one) vibe as Septimus.
There are several more characters, all of whom play a vital part and who are played well by James Lally, Joseph Milan, Khaki Hermann, Charles Hargrave, and Michael Sharon.
Sure, you may not hear all the words. Not only that, all the ones you do hear may not make complete sense, at least at first. But Arcadia is a clever, entertaining, and complex work that continually rewards close attention. And that is high praise indeed.
Through August 3, produced by the Mamai Theatre Company at the Pilgrim Church at Lincoln Park, 2592 W. 14th St., 216-382-5146.
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