— I hope they never make a movie of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The chances are unlikely, since the play's set in two different eras (1809-1812 and 1989) and takes place at a long table where people exchange witty remarks and there's little onstage action. A movie would want to sneak behind the scenes, showing us the "money shots" we only hear about: duels, romantic assignations, Lord Byron hunting pigeon and shooting a poor defenseless hare by mistake.

Arcadia resembles Chekhov's comedy-dramas, where little happens yet everything does -- much more than we can account for, in fact. Things occur twice, then and now, though variations of the periods, styles, and characters make the repetitions both the same and quite different. And since Hollywood has yet to produce a decent Three Sisters or Cherry Orchard, Arcadia's probably safe from a silver screening.

"I had a really good period of time," Stoppard said about writing Arcadia, "where somehow I could keep it all in view and look further down the road to see where things were heading...so things could intersect properly." Arcadia resembles watching several doubles matches on the same tennis court. It's about determinism and Chaos Theory (which proved "the unpredictability of determinism") and free will; about Classicism versus Romanticism, and how history gets miswritten, and poets and lunatics and genius, in the least likely places, and passion: for ideas, for one's reputation, and for sex -- although, as in Chaos Theory, matches get made by "strange attractors." Somehow Stoppard turns the one-court Wimbledon into an astonishingly interconnected tapestry. It's his best play, and one of the best of our era.

Had he not suffered an unthinkable tragedy, Septimus Hodge might have become a Lord Byron (by the end of Arcadia, you'd swear that the real George Gordon stole his "Byronic" style from Hodge!). Septimus talks circles around most residents of Sidley Park, a large country estate in Derbyshire. He tutors Thomasina Coverly, a typical 13-year-old with one exception: she's a mathematical genius a hundred years ahead of her time. Because she can't unstir the jam in her rice pudding -- it only swirls one way -- she opens a gap in Newtonian physics and talks circles around Septimus.

Flash to 1989: same table, though now the letters, leather-bound books, and theodolite become artifacts that Hannah Jarvis, a popular novelist, and Bernard Nightingale, a Sussex don, inspect for clues. Somewhere in her past, we never learn why, Hannah fled from emotion. Her mission in life: prove that Romanticism is a "sham" that resulted in the "decline from thinking," of the Age of Reason, "to feeling." Hannah is all mind, or at least wishes she could be.

She will force the facts to fit her thesis. As will Bernard, determined to prove that Lord Byron fought a duel at Sidley Park and murdered Ezra Chater (didn't happen). It's Bernard's main chance, not only for academic stardom, but -- note the tawdry nature of his aspirations --it could get him on The Breakfast Club. Unfeeling Hannah mirrors "the Sidley Hermit" she studies. Giddy Bernard's escapades (a seduction, or was he seduced?) make him a farcical version of Lord Byron. Hannah strains to be Classic; Bernard, hopelessly Romantic. But, as Stoppard shows, life unfolds with "snowflakes" (order) and "snowstorms" (chaos), free will and determinism, thinking and feeling. Stress one at the expense of the other, and you're on a collision-course with madness.

Stoppard called his play "a thriller and a romantic tragedy with jokes." The description's apt; it also shows the versatility Arcadia requires. Cygnet Theatre's opening-night performance brimmed with insights (director Sean Murray knows this play in all its complexity) but offered, at best, a mixed bag of acting.

The production has a sleek, elegant look. The long table picks up and sheds items the way Septimus says history does. Costume designer Jeanne Reith defines character then and now (and how strange, how underdressed, Hannah and Bernard must look to Septimus and Thomasina). Eric Lotze's excellent lighting ranges from candles to fireworks. The play's full of doublings, many ghostlike. Lotze visually underscores the duality by having actors reflected on the French windows.

Claudio Raygoza makes Bernard's intellectual passion so intense he becomes childlike. Raygoza's over-the-top. But each impulse and gesture is connected and crystal clear. Raygoza's so swift, precise, and detailed, everyone else seems a beat or two behind. And when he leaves the stage, the energy falls off.

That energy would perk up if the actors having to explain things -- landscape styles, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, iterated algorithms -- understood them better. Too often the explanations sound like rote recitals, and the scenes drag.

Rosina Reynolds smartly plays Hannah as romantically icy but full of emotion when sleuthing her subject. Matt Biedel's fine performance as Septimus -- assured, funny, at ease with the language -- makes you wonder where he's been. There were times when Rachel VanWormer's Thomasina was too shrill for the space; and others, as in the unforgettable ending, when she radiated.

The ending's almost a play in itself. I can't think of another as intricate, as hopeful and tragic, or as moving in contemporary theater. I won't give it away but want to add a note. For Septimus and Thomasina, it's 1812. She wants to learn to waltz, which came from Germany to England that year. Britishers deemed it scandalous because dancing partners held each other. That's why Thomasina tells Septimus, "If Mama comes, I will tell her we only met to kiss, not to waltz." And that's why you'll wish her mother, cavorting offstage with the piano-tuner, would intrude.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area

Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Rosina Reynolds, Claudio Raygoza, Kate Reynolds, Matt Biedel, Michael C. Burgess, Jim Chovick, Zev Lerner, David Radford, Rachael VanWormer, Bryan Curtiss White, Jason Connors; scenic design, Murray; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, George Ye

Playing through July 29; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.

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