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Arcadia entertains with fast-paced fun

Observer Scene | Monday, April 18, 2005

Well, well. What have we here?

A period piece not just for English and history buffs, but aimed at architecture, physics and math majors, as well?

Or is it?

“Arcadia,” the Tom Stop-pard farce running through Sunday in the Decio Mainstage of the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, is all that and much more.

An evening at one of its fast-paced performances clearly demonstrates why Stoppard, whose previous works include “Travesties” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” is arguably the greatest living playwright.

With seven scenes cannily sharing one set – the front room of the Coverly family estate in Derbyshire, England – the play alternates between the present and April of about 196 years ago. That’s when an absent character about whom this story ostensibly resolves, Lord Byron, was making his mark both in the literary world and in fashionable social circles.

The brooding poet isn’t seen in “Arcadia,” but the audience should nonetheless enjoy some delightful creatures obsessing about, not necessarily in this order of priority: Byron, hermits, gardens, Newton’s law of gravity and (this is a farce, isn’t it?) sex.

Visiting the Coverly home, where according to historical records Byron briefly visited, arrogant literary critic Bernard Nightingale (John Schewenker) scrounges for any clues that might give him an insight on his idol’s life.

Bernard strings together flimsy evidence and blatant conjecture and concludes Byron was involved in a love-triangle induced duel forcing him to abruptly flee to the continent. Level-headed historian Hannah Jarvis (Caito Rohn) doubts her colleague’s conspiracy theory and sets out to prove him wrong.

In the 19th century, there is indeed an illicit love affair unfolding, but not, initially at least, between who Bernard thinks. It is not the famous playboy Byron who is doing the seducing, but a very married Mrs. Chaters who works her way through most of the male characters in the play. Mrs. Chaters never actually appears in the play.

It’s hard to keep up with the characters, but then half the fun is in the attempt to do so.

The seemingly professional but entirely student cast turns in a marvelous performance, British accents and all. Even the butler, Jellaby (Tim Stawicki), is flawless, smirkingly complimenting the leads: sweet Thomasina Coverly (Caroline Askew), wise beyond her 16 years; her tutor Septimus Hodge (Drew McElligott), hired to ensure – this is 1809 after all – that she doesn’t become an “educated” woman; and Lady Croom (Sarah Loveland), Thomasina’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do mother.

The charming Septimus indulges Thomasina’s appetite for calculus problems and attempts to satisfy her curiosity about sex. In one comical scene, he attempts to describe the significance of a “carnal embrace.”

In addition to Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, the contemporary-era personalities include headstrong understated mathematician Valentine Coverly (T.J. McNally) and ditzy Chloe Coverly.

Some of the actors’ lines get lost in the rapid-fire dialogue, but skillful director Jay Paul Skelton and his splendid cast are clearly mindful of the number one rule of comedy: it’s all in the timing.

And amidst the madness, there are messages aplenty.

Tom Stoppard and those producing “Arcadia” at Notre Dame are definitely not satisfied with maintaining room temperature.