Tangled Jungle

The Alley wrestles with Bertolt Brecht, and nobody emerges a winner

Stoppard's play is split between two worlds: early 19th-century England and contemporary England. The catch is that both worlds are contained in the same house, the Coverly estate in Derbyshire. The historical half of the story, set on the cusp of an age in which scholars embraced science as ardently as they did poetry, opens with an inquisitive 13-year-old, Thomasina Coverly, in the midst of studying Newton's laws, geometry and portrait sketching. Thomasina's tutor, Septimus Hodge, is a personal friend of Lord Byron. (Yes, that Lord Byron.)

As played by Shannon Emerick, Thomasina is a charming blend of early teenage innocence and sharp wit. When her tutor tells her that a carnal embrace is when a person hugs a side of beef, she doesn't quite believe him, but waits until the study is full of people before calling him on the point. Aside from clever definitions, Arcadia is a play about leaps of faith in scholarly pursuits. Thomasina ardently believes that it's possible to algebraically graph a leaf, an idea that comes about 70 years before there was the equipment possible to complete such a task. That sort of conflict, the power of the mind versus the limits of knowledge, is what drives Arcadia. With Thomasina and her tutor, Stoppard creates the source material that his contemporary set of characters must sift through. In the alternating scenes that jump between the centuries, Stoppard's contemporary characters cloud their pursuit of knowledge with careerism and pettiness, while Thomasina and her tutor are bound by time and social convention. The contemporary characters are, however, equally amusing in their modern neuroses: Hannah Jarvis, a crusty landscape and literature scholar whose fault is her seriousness; Bernard Nightingale, a pompous professor who's out to publish a juicy revelation about Byron, regardless of its truth; and the lamenting biologist Valentine Coverly, whose house and its history is the source of all the scholarly turmoil.

The success of Main Street's production lies in its graceful and well-tuned timing, especially in the terse interaction between Claire Hart-Palumbo as Jarvis and Bryan Bounds as Nightingale. The two cleverly argue about literature, Bounds nailing his character with the line, "I don't like giving credit where credit is due," and Jarvis finally realizing that beyond the quest for publication, it is "wanting to know that makes us matter." There are occasional weak spots, particularly when the uninspired Rob de los Reyes, playing Septimus, realizes that his student's mental prowess exceeds his own, and an inexplicable burst of Muzak heard during the second act. But aside from these few stumbles, there is much to admire in this charming production, especially Main Street's ability to make a play about math and science entertaining, and Udden's ability to direct work that moves fluidly from one century to the next.

In the Jungle of Cities plays through October 6 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-9341.

Arcadia plays through October 20 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.

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