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The fall in the Triangle has been dotted with a number of notable historical plays, from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, August Wilson's blues memoir at Pure Life Theatre, and Ona at Odyssey Stage to Scrap Paper Shakespeare's scrappy but ambitious read of Shakespeare's Henriad.
Often, histories give us the perspective that comes with the distance between the present moment and the times depicted. But the current offerings from Burning Coal and Stone Soup mainly serve to underline how far we haven't come as a culture, since either the second decade of the 19th century in Tom Stoppard's lively and intellectually engaging comic drama Arcadia, or the twilight of Weimar Germany in the classic Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. As a cautionary codicil, Arcadia, much like Kenan Theatre's production of Men on Boats earlier this month, also reveals just how deeply problematic the process can be of deciding what history actually is in the first place.
We might wonder how far Arcadia's historical excursion can extend when we never leave the modest single room that suffices for the set: designer Stephen White's spare, sunny, windowed study in the back of a manor house on an estate somewhere in England's Eastern midlands.
The answer: just over 180 years, as the times keep changing in this otherwise unprepossessing suite. Stoppard repeatedly transits back and forth here between the early 1800s, when the space is a classroom for Thomasina Coverly (accomplished young actor Susannah Skaggs), the uncannily precocious thirteen-year-old daughter of the lord of the manor, and 1993, when it serves as an ad hoc conference room and home base for independent scholar Hannah Jarvis and intellectual gadfly Bernard Nightengale (Triangle theatre veterans Emily Rieder and Byron Jennings), two academic frenemies trying to suss out exactly what took place on the estate some 180 years before.
(A third jump in time – between 1993, when the play was written and now – remains conspicuously foregrounded when a bulky '90s-era desktop computer that prop designer Randolph Carter crafted figures into key revelations.)
As the interlacing plot lines unfold, Thomasina increasingly suggests a figure comparable to the 19th-century scientific wunderkind Ada Lovelace, only born a little earlier. Her mischievous discourses reveal not only a budding young scientific mind, but one that is discovering the fundamental conclusions of thermodynamics a couple of decades before the works of Carnot and Kelvin, and the heart of fractal theory to boot, piecing together how algebraic numbers might describe the world of nature roughly a century before Mandelbrot.
We're meant to reflect on the contingency of the discoveries Thomasina makes in these scenes. They're wholly dependent not only upon the economic privilege of her aristocratic parents, but the willingness of her mother, Lady Croom (imperious and droll Maggie Lea) to buck the social conventions of the time in providing a girl with an excellent education, from the wry, Cambridge-educated tutor, Septimus Hodge (Daniel Ryder).
We're struck, though, by the similar contingencies that have already circumscribed Hannah Jarvis' 20th-century researches by the time we first meet her. It soon becomes clear that, in both eras, the academic, artistic, and cultural gatekeepers are predominantly male, and their agendas – including what and who is worth studying – skew decidedly toward their own self-interests.
Before her first scene, Hannah's book, a reconsidering of 19th-century genderqueer novelist Caroline Lamb (which eerily presages Antonia Fraser's book, published just this year), has already been dissed and dismissed by the scholars of Lord Byron, who broke off an affair with her in 1812. (Their number includes Nightengale himself who, upon finding he needs her help, introduces himself to her at first under an assumed name.) "The Byron gang unzipped their flies and patronized all over it," Hannah grouses, before Nightengale's deception is revealed.
Meanwhile, in 1809, Thomasina can read literary and scientific texts in Latin and English but can access only the barest rudiments of accurate sex education. Hodge's position is threatened when that's learned of, as Capt. Brice thunders, "As her tutor, you have a duty to keep her in ignorance!" Thomasina's all-important education is further jeopardized by her tutor's off-hours dalliances with the wife of a foppish visiting poet, among others.
Significantly, Thomasina and Hannah are struck in both times by the degrees to which sex contributes to the disasters of their own and other ages.
Thomasina despairs of Cleopatra, whose Roman romance ultimately results in the civilization's loss of the Library of Alexandria. "It only needs a Roman general to drop anchor outside the window," she ruefully observes, "and away goes the empire like a christening mug into a pawn shop."
Hannah, who on the evidence here might well self-categorize in the present day as gray-asexual, easily rebuffs the boorish advances of Nightengale, who tells her, with breathtaking presumption, that she "might have written a better book – or at any rate the right book" if she'd only had more sex.
"What the hell is it with you people?" she demands. "Chaps sometimes wanted to marry me, and I don't know a worse bargain. Available sex against not being allowed to fart in bed."
But the ache in the relationship that numbers nerd (and estate heir) Valentine Coverly (piquant Ian Finley) wants with her is harder to deny. With enviable economy, Stoppard summarizes their emotional impasse in two succinct lines of dialogue. After another spurned marriage proposal, Valentine tells Hannah, "You get nothing if you give nothing."
After a moment's thought, Hannah then responds.
"I ask nothing," she says.
To her, the prospect of romantic entanglements echo what she elsewhere calls "the whole Romantic sham. It's what happened to the Enlightenment: a century of intellectual rigor, turned in on itself… The decline from thinking to feeling, you see."
In both eras, passions are not to be trusted. In the early 1800s, they provoke death-dealing duels that alter the trajectories of the lives they do not end. In the present day, the hunger for fame drives Bernard to rush the work even as Hannah cautions him about evidentiary standards while the pair comb through the incomplete records of the estate. Ultimately Bernard advances, before a national audience, a theory that purports to answer a longstanding riddle of the literary canon – what drove Lord Byron to leave England in 1816 – before all of the corroborating evidence can be assembled.
As we flip back and forth between both eras, we not only see where fragmentary data from the past is misinterpreted. We also note that a Bernard so hyperfocused on Lord Byron's momentary visit to the estate has totally ignored Thomasina's existence.
This raises the deeper riddle in Stoppard's text: Why is that brilliant, young woman's name unknown to modern science? Thankfully, one of the researchers is determined to find out. History is depending on the outcome.
In one of the finest – and most difficult – productions he's ever directed, Burning Coal founder Jerome Davis has given real drive and real heart to Stoppard's intellectual puzzle box. A palpable sense of ensemble surrounds this gifted cast. Daniel Ryder's dry humor leavened the not-so-jaded tutor Septimus Hodge, and Susannah Skaggs was more than a match as student Thomasina Coverly. Under Davis's direction, Emily Rieder's take on feminist researcher Hannah Jarvis was a collection of deftly placed nuances, Ian Finley read the intellectual heights – and emotional limitations – of her possible partner Valentine, and Byron Jennings burst with infectious energy and infuriating smugness as patriarchal academic Bernard Nightengale.
As the various pieces of Stoppard's fascinating puzzle fell into place across two centuries, a haunting sense of contingency returned as we left. So much has to go absolutely right – and keep going absolutely right – for a woman's genius to be recognized, in 1813, 1993, and the present day.
So much, and so many, get lost as we attempt, as humans, not only to keep but add to the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and thus the meanings of our lives. This probing inquiry into how that happens deserves our highest recommendation. See it before it closes.
Arcadia continues at Burning Coal through Sunday, October 29. For more details, please view the sidebar.
But before we close, word concerning the opposing side comes from Stone Soup Theatre's production of Cabaret. In Kander and Ebb's 1966 musical, the self-centered bohemians in Weimar Berlin revel in outré, outspoken expressions of sexuality and social criticism, ignoring the metastasizing cancer of nationalism that's infiltrating all stratas of German politics and society.
Under Melissa S. Craib Dombrowski's direction, there was an extra shrillness to leading actor Brady Bowman's trickster turn as Emcee of the Kit Kat Club. Among his nervous patter, the wide, darting eyes, and hair-trigger reactions of our overstimulated host suggested that the place might be raided at any minute.
As Dombrowski alluded to in a moving pre-show speech, that prospect is not entirely out of the question in a country where laws banning drag performance have been given prominence among nearly 600 anti-LGBTQ initiatives filed in 2023 alone. Depending on the political organization and activism of all parties, it may be even less so in the time to come.
Stone Soup's uneven production featured solid work from supporting actors and certain leads. Mickey Reed made a moving Frau Schneider in authoritative renditions of "So What" and "What Would You Do." Accompanied by the ever-melodious John Adams as her aging lover, Herr Schultz, the pair simply sold the sentimental songs "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "Married." Kent Lewis persuaded as the enigmatic Berliner, Ernst Ludwig.
Flashy Kayla Petrille ably animated the toast of Mayfair, Sally Bowles, aching, under Dr. Joanna Sisk-Purvis's musical direction, through the subtleties of a desperate hope for love in "Maybe This Time." But rudimentary choreography, iffy casting, sometimes kludgy staging and transitions, and unconvincing performances elsewhere detracted from a needed sense of ensemble and world here. Words to grow on, as a still young and promising company continues its development in the future.