CAMBRIDGE — Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” combines Lord Byron, thermodynamics, and landscape design, all swept up in a romantic tale of love and loss that plays across centuries.
“We started the research on the play a year ago,” says Lee Mikeska Gardner, who is directing the Nora Theatre Company production that runs through May 1 at Central Square Theater. “We want to understand the world of the play, and Stoppard’s references, but our most important job is to tell the story.”
“Arcadia” unfolds in the same setting in two different periods. In one, the early 19th century, a shift toward romanticism unsettles the residents of the English country estate called Sidley Park, while in the 20th-century scenes a trio of academics gather at the estate, trying to glean clues to prove their various theories around the poetry, science, and romanticism the 19th-century Sidley Park residents were grappling with. As the play progresses, the conversations happening in each century increasingly overlap, culminating in a scene in which the competing ideas of emotion and reason come together.
For Gardner, the story is most interesting as seen through the lens of the play’s women: Thomasina, the brilliant young mathematician of the early 19th century; Hannah Jarvis, a 20th-century academic; and Lady Croom, Thomasina’s mother and the person in charge of Sidley Park.
“Each of these women push the three intersecting plotlines forward,” says Gardner. “The men in the story respond to the actions of the women.”
“Arcadia” is this season’s Catalyst Collaborative @MIT production, a partnership between Central Square Theatre and MIT that has produced science-based plays for a decade now.
“As we started on our second decade of the Catalyst Collaborative, we decided to go back to the three plays that really defined the genre,” says Gardner, citing “Arcadia,” “Copenhagen,” and “Proof.” “Moving forward, we’d like to commission plays that focus on people of color or women, events or people in science whose stories haven’t been told before.”
In the “Arcadia” rehearsal room, Gardner points to a large bulletin board covered with photos and clippings that illustrate some of the ideas in the play. Investing time in research for the play was essential, she says, but then each actor has to be rooted in his or her character, and understand what that character knows. The play, she says, operates like a detective story, with the audience privy to some information the characters are not aware of.
Much of the humor and drama in the 20th-century scenes occur in the verbal sparring between Hannah, a writer investigating the mysterious 19th-century Hermit of Sidley Park, and Bernard Nightingale, a university professor eager to work with Hannah on his theory that Lord Byron fled England after a duel at Sidley Park.
“There’s a wonderful yin and yang to these characters,” says Celeste Oliva, who portrays Hannah. “She’s achieved early success with a book about Lord Byron’s mistress because she’s very methodical and isn’t afraid to take a realistic look at the facts. But she won’t go near any questions about emotions.”
“Bernard, on the other hand,” says Ross MacDonald, who portrays the arrogant academic, “has run way ahead of himself on a theory that Hannah quickly debunks. Bernard’s idea of the romantic movement is all wrapped up in what he thinks Byron is, even when the facts don’t back him up.”
In the rehearsal room, Gardner stops and starts a scene to make sure the actors are connected, not just to the words they are saying but to the meaning behind them and how they relate to the other characters.
“There’s an order to the way this play unfolds,” she says. “Stoppard carefully builds one detail on top of the next until both worlds collide.”
‘Dog’ has its day
One of the quirkiest comedies to hit local stages recently is playwright Liz Duffy Adams’s dystopian “Dog Act.”
Director Diego Arciniegas says he found the language in “Dog Act” to be like a mashup of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Shakespeare’s poetry. “It’s funny and clever and purely theatrical,” says Arciniegas, who is directing the dark comedy for Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater. The play runs Friday through April 23.
Adams’s “Dog Act” is described as a post-apocalyptic vaudeville in which four performers try to make their way across the wasteland that once was the United States, using their storytelling skills to keep the last vestige of culture alive. “This is a celebration of everything that’s wonderful about theater,” says Arciniegas, “its playfulness, imagination, emotion, and its ritual power to bring a community together.” Because the players are vaudevilleans, they must adapt their performances to whichever audience might be watching.
Adams’s script includes references to every major theatrical movement. Arciniegas compares “Dog Act” to “really good jazz. You can’t quite hear the melody but you hear the references.”
Tickets are $10. Call 866-811-4111 or go to www.theatreonfire.org.
‘Doll’s House’ at the Huntington
An adaptation of “A Doll’s House” will complete the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2016-17 season. “A Doll’s House,” which will play at the BU Theatre Jan. 6-Feb. 7, 2017, follows the awakening independence of Nora Helmer. The adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play, to be directed by Melia Bensussen (“Awake and Sing!,” “Luck of the Irish”), was written by Bryony Lavery, whose plays “Frozen” and “Stockholm” offer striking explorations of complicated, sometimes destructive relationships.
The Huntington’s seven-play season opens Sept. 9 with Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” For subscription info, call 617-266-0800 or got to www.huntingtontheatre.org.