Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Chaos, Science, and the Thrill of Research: Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA at Central Square Theater

Reviewed by E. Rosser

Science and history.  Scholars butting heads.   A house whose story spans generations.  Meet the agents of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s classic play currently in production through the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, a resident program at Central Square Theater.  For the past decade, CC@MIT has brought science to the public limelight by producing at least one play about science per season, with special emphasis on marginalized scientists whose stories are frequently neglected.  Past shows in this vein include: A Disappearing Number, about the life of genius Indian mathematician, Ramanujan; Breaking the Code, featuring the tragic end of computer pioneer, Alan Turing; and Photograph 51, focusing on Rosalind Franklin and her DNA discoveries that were scooped by male colleagues.  Arcadia doesn’t slot quite so easily into one single theme: it’s quite layered, touching on sexism in academia, the thrill of research, intellectual rigor, plenty of sex and interpersonal conflict, and, just to keep things interesting, a time-jumping narrative.  Although the script features less science than most descriptions would have you expect (and, frankly, less science than I had hoped), this production was stunning, and the talented cast was well up to the task of capturing the nuances of Stoppard’s layered play.  

The 1809 characters of Arcadia.  Photo Credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography.
The action is split between two timelines unravelling in the same room in an English manor house, Sidley Park, nearly two hundred years apart.  Brilliant daughter of the estate Thomasina Coverly (played by Kira Patterson) is tutored by Septimus Hodge (Will Madden) out of an algebra textbook in 1809; in 1993, scholars Hannah Jarvis (Central Square regular, Celeste Oliva) and Valentine Coverly (Matthew Zahnzinger) try to piece together the history of the estate from the annotations Thomasina scrawled there.  The table, dressed to Regency perfection by the props and set team, becomes heaped with books, papers, teacups, a pet tortoise, and the general effluvia of both eras’ research.  As the links between the two eras develop, both sets of actors can grab the relevant paper or book, until time barriers melt away and we learn the entire story of Sidley Park.  It’s a well-choreographed dance of props--an impressive feat that the cast pulls off seamlessly.  The lush 17th-Century costumes by Leslie Held, the thrust stage set by Janie E. Howland, and the creative team's attention to detail make the time-hopping easy to follow and the eventual meshing of the two narratives quite satisfying.

The core paradoxes of the play--order turning to chaos, and logic interfacing with intuition--are displayed through several discussions of  “science.”  The play certainly references many scientific principles...but the descriptions are vague and non-technical enough to count as philosophy.  Thomasina disparages a steam engine installed on the grounds, saying “he’ll never get out what he put into it” after reading an essay by “a Frenchman,” but the term “Carnot Efficiency” is never uttered.  A gorgeous parallel (among many) between the two eras has Thomasina wondering why you can't un-stir rice pudding and jam, and Val and Hannah asking the same about the cream in their coffee. Yet, there’s no clear connection between that irreversible process and the “descent into chaos” and “unwinding” and “entropy” the characters later discuss openly (that time, the term is actually said).  Even the most “hard-science” character, Val, describes his research on the estate’s grouse population in a way that left my theater-going comrades and I (a nerdier lot than the average crowd, granted) confused as to whether he was talking about algorithms, or fractals, or an exponential growth problem that any differential equations course covers in its first lecture.  The topics were beautifully used as symbols, but they weren’t really treated with the level of meaty technical detail I was expecting (and craving, after the tidy framing of the concepts).
The modern counterparts of Sidley Park.  Photo credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography.
Coming straight from a Science + Diversity + Theater Conference with the CC@MIT, I suppose I was in a relatively pedantic mood when it came to the distinction between “theater about science” and “theater that imparts science.”  Still, if these concepts flit through the narrative on this scale--the scale of mere metaphor--is it still a “science play,” or is it better called a “science-related play?”  That’s a semantics discussion for another day, I suppose.

Even if the script doesn’t leave you with a perfect grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, this production moves along at an invigorating clip, chock-full of Stoppard’s usual wit and intricate dialogue.  The energy the actors bring to their characters--a dogged effervescence as they dig for clues amongst the books and records--is infectious, and loaded with dry humor amongst the period platitudes.  In a Q&A session with director, Lee Mikeska Gardner, beforehand, she remarked, “If there’s no humor in it, it’s not a play about people.”  In that case, Arcadia keeps its humanity firmly rooted, especially in the repartee between the three modern scholars.  Logic faces off against intuition in the most memorable scene, at least for me, where tweedy literature prof, Bernie Nightingale, played with superb distracted charisma by Ross MacDonald, walks his colleagues through his findings on Lord Byron’s scandalous stay at Sidley.  Oliva, as Hannah, punctuates each point with a perfectly-timed and insistent raised hand, which Bernie blows by in his fervor.  Zahnzinger as Val shines in the debate, nonchalantly feeding his tortoise throughout (“But it’s his lunchtime!”).  He ends up calling Bernie’s historical findings “trivial” in a way that Val means and Zahnzingher delivers as gentle, but sends Bernie into an apoplectic attack on the relevancy of science.  Val can only mutter back, “I meant it as a technical term.”  It’s one of the most amusing and least civil battle of the nerds I’ve ever witnessed, and its humanity echoed through the rest of the show, along with consistently spot-on performances by the rest of the cast.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner in rehearsal.  Photo Credit: Jonathan Wiggs / the Boston Globe Staff
Although it didn’t have me exactly fired up to hit the lab bench or the history archives in quite the way I was expecting, I left the theater with a warm regard for the humans behind our favorite branches of learning, appreciating their foibles along with their feats.  Arcadia’s linking of past and present reminds us that science and history are both about handing down stories--never as directly as the characters do as they pass a paper across the table and across time.  But the metaphor, while a little detached, was solid.  

Arcadia runs until May 15 at the Central Square Theater.  Whether you’re a fan of the science or simply looking for an evening with some engaging and passionate characters, this portal through history is worth a visit!  Reserve your tickets at


E. Rosser is a science writer and mechanical engineer currently wrapping up a degree at MIT.  As a part-time costume designer, she ends up at the theater surprisingly frequently--perhaps she should put this hobby to use with more reviews?

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