Pillbox

Purnell mainstage begins with Stoppard

Take notice how many people do a double take when they are told that Arcadia, Carnegie Mellon?s latest production at the Phillip Chosky Theater, is a play about love, sex, and chaos theory. Tom Stoppard?s award-winning 1993 piece mixes influences far and wide to weave a compelling and wholly original tale that stretches across two hundred years and two full sets of characters.

The central foci of Arcadia are twofold. One plot line follows young prodigy Thomasina Coverly, played by drama senior Kat Mandeville, and her womanizing tutor Septimus Hodge, played by drama senior Stephen Schellhardt. The play follows the two as they deal with an uproar in 1809 at Sydney Gardens, their estate. Septimus is accused of engaging in ?carnal embrace? with the wife of household guest and struggling poet Ezra Chater, played by drama senior Will Reynolds. This struggle parallels the overhaul of the estate?s famous garden, which gives Lady Croom, played by drama senior Kylee Rousselot, fits as she argues against the charges.

The other plot arc takes place in 1993 at the same location, which has been abandoned and being combed through by historians and archaeologists. Drama senior Claudia Duran plays Hannah Jarvis, a researcher working on a paper about the enigmatic hermit who inhabited a small shack on the estate. When her old critic Bernard Nightingale, played by drama senior Chuck Hittinger, arrives at the estate to investigate some interesting connections of the family to the famous poet Lord Byron, the insults fly even as the two realize their investigations are intertwined.
It is very surprising that an entire play can essentially focus on chaos theory. Young Thomasina sees the science behind heat transfer and entropy and can?t explain the math; in the present, Valentine Coverly is looking at population curves for grouse and trying to derive an equation. The interesting part of Arcadia is that everything converges and interrelates between the two time periods. Valentine ends up using Thomasina?s numbers to solve his population query. Even some of the minutest details tie into the theme; the gardener Richard Noakes, drama senior Andrew Gehling, uses an ?advanced? steam engine to help landscape the estate in 1809, which then inspires Thomasina to develop her heat transfer diagrams.

Therein lies the genius of Tom Stoppard?s writing. He ties everything together with a sense of fleeting logic; many times during the play you get the feeling that if you don?t pay attention, you?ll be lost later on. Everything has its perceived importance and its ties to the unexpected. ?The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is,? Valentine explained in the first act of the play. Just like his population data and Thomasina?s numbers, Arcadia takes the same themes and recurses them from the simplest peripheral detail all the way up to the play itself ? and it is an amazing feat to have it actually make sense on that many levels.

That is not to say, of course, that Arcadia is dry and scientific. Much of the play?s appeal comes from Stoppard?s excellent use of humor. Arcadia is about sex as much as it is about chaos theory, and this lets Stoppard work in enough humor to draw in even the shortest-attention-spanned crowds. Bawdy humor and sarcastic wit share equal footing, with each time period having its own blend of the two. An extended joke between Thomasina and Septimus about the definition of ?carnal embrace? recurs throughout the first act, while the present day scenes spark with the vitriolic bickering between Jarvis and Nightingale.

Schellhardt?s Hodge steals the show. Less than ten minutes into the first scene, he is accused of having sex with a married woman and spends the rest of the play defending himself from the ?insulted? husband. The only thing Hodge really seems to take seriously is math and science ? and because of that, he has a special bond with Thomasina. To everyone else, however, he is simply a cocky smartass who has no respect for other people and lives in his own little world of numbers. But he is fun to watch as he dodges accusations and spins people?s words back on themselves, all with a sense of smug self-satisfaction.

Thomasina Coverly looks up to Hodge with a sense of admiration that, as the play goes on, becomes more of a childhood crush. Kat Mandeville plays Thomasina, easily one of the most intriguing characters in Arcadia, with a muted naivete that brings a realistic edge to the character. Sure, she is incredibly gifted in math and science, but she is still a little girl, and this is evident throughout the play. She discusses the nature of entropy by using rice pudding and jam as an example. She is often shushed by her elders and pouts when she doesn?t get her way. Mandeville gives the character an almost insatiable curiosity ? Thomasina is always thinking, and always asking questions. Mandeville brings life to a unique character and does it very well.

It would be difficult to find a play that encompasses as many different thematic elements as Arcadia. Chaos theory, unrequited love, sex, gardening, Fermat?s Last Theorem, thermodynamics, determinism, iterated algorithms, and more all tie together to create a truly intriguing tale that has something to grab everyone?s attention ? a great choice for a school like Carnegie Mellon.

Arcadia runs through Saturday in the Purnell Center.