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Chaos theory, academia and human sexuality in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at University Theatre

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Tom Stoppard's Arcadia turned 20 this year, but the play is timeless in its bridging of the past and present, and its probing of chaos theory, academia and human sexuality.

It spans two centuries within a Georgian manor, jumping back and forth between 1809 and the present. In the 19th-century storyline wrought with sexual farce, brilliant young Thomasina Coverly studies under the tutelage of rakish Septimus Hodge but quickly outpaces him with her theories about thermodynamics and the end of the universe. Meanwhile, in a present-day story, bristly historian Hannah Jarvis spars with self-important academic Bernard Nightingale as the two try to piece together what happened at the Coverly estate two centuries prior.

N.C. State University Theatre's production of Arcadia, running at Titmus Theatre under the direction of Allison Bergman, features beautifully designed set and costumes, surprisingly decent British accents and strong performances from student actors (including a lovely Natalie Sherwood as Thomasina and a quick-tongued Alex Smith as Septimus).

But there are two big problems. The first: The sex—or the idea of sex—that acts as the hot, wet fuel for much of the plot is stifled by the lack of chemistry among young actors. The feuding between Hannah and Bernard, for one, misses at much potential for sexual tension and humor; their rivalry grows stale without any romantic sparks to accelerate it.

A bigger problem still is that key bits of dialogue containing necessary plot points have gotten lost among the accents and the theater's acoustics. Stoppard's language is wordy and difficult, to be sure, but I was having difficulty following who was who, and what was what, well before intermission. For a three-hour play reliant on plot twists, witticisms and dense theory, that's unacceptable. My suggestion: Read the play, then go see the production.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Encounters at the end of the world."

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