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Sex, math and monkey bites

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia opens at the Lakewood Playhouse

Past and present intermingle in Arcadia. Photo credit: Lakewood Playhouse

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In one way, dear reader, it would be very difficult for me to describe the plot of Arcadia without spoiling it for you; in another way, it may actually be impossible for me to spoil this play to anyone. Going into this production, the managing artistic director of the Lakewood Playhouse told me that seeing it multiple times is the best way to really understand as much of the dense script as possible and, while that may be true, what's also true is that one need not understand every little detail of Arcadia in order to be affected by its odd mixture of mile-a-minute intellectual debate, borderline farcical comedy and unexpected tenderness.

The bare bones of Arcadia are as such: Taking place at a provincial English estate, we flash back and forth between 1809 and the present day. Broadly speaking, these separate times are populated by poets, scientists and historians (and those who put on airs of intellectualism). In 1809, Septimus Hodge (Mason Quinn) is tutoring 13-year-old mathematics genius Thomasina Coverly (Kait Mahoney), while simultaneously carrying on an affair with the wife of blissfully ignorant, terrible poet Ezra Chater (Ben Stahl). Present day finds later generations of estate occupants (namely scientist Valentine Coverly, well underplayed by Jacob Tice) being visited by two historians: the singleminded Hannah Jarvis (Deya Ozburn) and the boorish, fame-hungry Bernard Nightingale (Jed Slaughter).

What follows, as we jump back in forth in time - with some clever intermingling - is an exploration of, among other things, sex, the fight between poetry and science, the flexibility of journalistic integrity in the face of notoriety, and the relative danger of monkey attacks. If this sounds a bit daunting, that's because it certainly can be. It's unclear for the first half of Act One exactly why these people are digging into the past, and just what bearing the past has on the present. For large stretches, the characters are simply happy to engage in spirited arguments about whether the steadfastness of science is more elegant than the malleability of poetry or philosophy. The script, by iconic playwright Tom Stoppard, is uninterested in holding the audience's hand or giving too many easy answers.

This is difficult material, which requires the actors to have the ability to carry it off in as breezy a way as possible, which this cast mostly does quite well. In spite of what it sounds like to describe Arcadia, this is indeed a comedy, and Quinn, Stahl, Slaughter, Tice, and Ozburn deliver their dialogue with enough confidence that I found myself frequently laughing for a few seconds before my brain could unspool what had been said. Mahoney, in particular, shines in a role that requires her to be far smarter than the other characters without their ever really knowing, and for that not to come off as a child's precociousness.

Arcadia may sometimes be hard to follow (which is not, mind you, necessarily a sign of quality), but if you can't make it out to see it more than once, it's fine to just let the ideas and the performances wash over you.

LAKEWOOD PLAYHOUSE, Fridays & Saturdays through Jan. 31 at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., $19-$25, "Pay What You Can" Thursdays at 8 p.m., 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, 253.588.0042

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