BRATTLEBORO

Entropy. Fermat's Theorem. Algorithms. Chaos theory. Previously undiscovered letters of Lord Byron. The history of English landscape architecture. This is an evening at the theater? Big yawn, right?

Wrong. "Arcadia," the finest play by England's greatest living playwright, is a thrilling work. If you know Tom Stoppard's first hit, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," or his screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love," you know what to expect: dazzling wordplay, abundant wit, clever stagecraft.

"Arcadia" is a comedy, certainly, in the tradition of Wilde and Shaw, but Stoppard might suitably echo what Shaw said of himself: "The real joke is that I am in earnest." "Arcadia" turns out to be a meditation on the themes of knowledge, time, love and loss.

There are two stories set in one location, two centuries apart, alternating and ultimately converging. The contemporary story is a scholarly investigation into the 19th-century one. Its characters struggle, and mostly fail, to understand the past, while the characters in the earlier story grapple with a dimly perceived future.

Enlightenment -- the Age of Reason -- is giving way to Romanticism -- the Age of Feeling -- but also to the Age of Science and the industrial revolution. The central character in that earlier story is the precocious child Thomasina, wiser than her foolish elders, denizens of a class-ridden society on the verge of extinction.


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Only her tutor and intellectual equal, Septimus Hodge, can appreciate her. The main characters in the modern story, Bernard Nightingale and Hannah Jarvis, are academics, jockeying for position in their own narrow worlds. The early story plays like Mozartian comedy, the modern one like Tracy and Hepburn with Ph.D's.

Over the years Vermont Theatre Company repertory has ranged widely, from low farce to high Hamlet. "Arcadia," though, is one of the most demanding challenges they have taken on. It would be unsporting to give a full review of their work, seen in a run-through at the start of production week, shy of some costumes and most lighting and running overtime, as such sessions invariably do. Most of the 12-member company are VTC veterans. Several major roles receive highly charged, hilarious performances. Secondary roles are strongly cast. In rehearsal, Act I built to a lively climax; the first scene of Act II began at the same level and held there. By opening night the show should be tight as a geometrical proof.

Vermont Theatre Company presents "Arcadia" on March 21, 22, 27, 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m., and on March 23 at 3 p.m., at New England Youth Theater, 100 Flat St.

General admission is $15, $12 for students, seniors and everyone on Sunday and Thursday. For tickets, call 802-258-1344 or visit vtcreservations@gmail.com