Chaos, order and Arcadia

November 7, 2017


I almost didn’t make it to “Arcadia.” The play sold out hours in advance, to the delight of the actors running through the halls of the Center for Performing Arts exclaiming, “It can’t be sold out! It just can’t be!”

It was opening night and I was fifth in line on the waiting list. A large party of math professors had reserved the entire front section of the theatre.

Miraculously, I was granted entrance moments before curtain.

What followed was a two and a half hour meditation on the present’s relationship with the past and a work of historical fiction where the 19th century shared the stage with the 20th, both periods attempting to understand the natural chaos and order of the universe.

The plot for Tom Sheppard’s “Arcadia” is complex and academic. It melds a classic theatre writing style with mathematical jargon and archival research.

I overheard members of the audience admitting confusion (not the math professors) and therefore dismissing the play. But this viewer would argue that the complexities are central to the purpose of the show.

The central conflict is between a desperate intellectual, Bernard Nightingal (brilliantly played by Brad Smith), and writer Chloe Coverly (the equally talented Kenzie Phillips) tediously studying and debating Lord Byron’s role in killing a man in a duel.

This present-day debate is periodically interrupted by flashbacks to the 19th century tutoring sessions between the brilliant but mischievous Septimus Hodge (Justin Petty) and his pupil Thomasina Coverly (Grace Mulinix).

Both sections, the past and the present, explore the ability of one to prescribe meaning to uncertainty.

The former explores this in Bernard’s conviction that there is evidence for Lord Byron’s guilt, and the latter in Thomasina’s mathematical discoveries. Lord Byron is never seen, even in flashbacks, inviting the audience to partake in the ambiguity.

In my three years reviewing UT productions for the Independent Collegian, this is by far the best all-around production I have seen.

“Arcadia” has what college plays should have: a curation of thoughtful, perhaps underdone, works directed tastefully (this one was especially smart and subtle by guest director Qarie Marshall) and performed with tremendous effort.

This production checked those marks with charm and a little bit of experimentation to keep this viewer thinking during and after the show.

“Arcadia” kept me thinking so much that it pervaded my weekly trip to the movie theatre as well.

I imagine many student viewers will struggle to grasp the plot, but I urge students here at UT to enter “Arcadia” with a mind of acceptance.

Accept that you will not understand every piece of mathematical jargon or trivial chapter of literary history. Anyone who leaves the theatre claiming they understand it all is either lying or in the midst of concocting a story within their own minds, much like Bernard or Armand.

Remember, this is a play about chaos. Accept it and order will follow.

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