As the second act of Arcadia opens, English scholar Bernard is reading to several friends and associates what he thinks will be his career-making speech.
He keeps getting interrupted; when he asks where he was, he receives a variety of responses:
”Game book,“ says mathematical biologist Valentine.
”Sex,“ says flighty teenager Chloe.
”Literature,“ says writer Hannah.
The exchange is a bit of a microcosm of Tom Stoppard's 1993 play, beloved for its gorgeous language yet intimidating for its scientific and mathematical subplots about chaos theory, thermodynamics and things of that sort.
The play is set on an estate in the British countryside in the early 1800s and the present day. The contemporary characters are descendants of the 19th-century characters and scholars researching some of the mysteries from the past, including Lord Byron and complex mathematical theories that require modern computers to work, though a teenager in the days before electricity seemed to grasp them.
”The more I read it, the more I see it, the more I see in it,“ says Shayne Brakefield, who plays Valentine Coverly. ”It's about classical philosophy versus romantic, it's about math, it's about the battle of the sexes, it's about sex.“
And it's funny, he says.
Valentine is the character who has the task of explaining a lot of the play's thicker material to the audience.
”The first time I read it, I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about,“ Brakefield says.
So he and director Ave Lawyer made it their business to learn, including extended chats with University of Kentucky mathematics professor Peter Perry about topics covered in the show.
Lawyer had called in Perry and other academics from UK when she directed David Auburn's Proof, another play that turns on complex mathematics, at Studio Players. At the time, Lawyer said directing Arcadia was her dream gig.
She saw the play at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Orange County, Calif., and, ”when it was over, I was speechless. It was human drama with ideas that linger and echo. It sets up shop in your mind.“
Brakefield says he and other cast members could tell Lawyer was really into the show because they started receiving e-mails from her more than six months ago suggesting movies to watch, books to read and Web sites to explore to inform their performances.
That reflected her work.
”I did more research on this than anything in my life,“ Lawyer says. ”If I had done this much research in college, I would own the world now.
”There is a fine line between giving your cast enough information to perform their roles and overwhelming them with information.“
Brakefield says he needed to learn, though, ”because if I don't know what I'm talking about, how can I expect the audience to know?“
Knowing gives Brakefield a clear idea of how some of the scientific concepts work into the plot of the show.
Chaos theory, for instance, deals with how the slightest variation in order can completely change everything, and the second law of thermodynamics says that, essentially, everything will come back to room temperature.
”Here we are in beautiful Sidley Park, and still, everything will dissipate until it's gone,“ he says. ”It says to take life and learn as much as you can, love as much as you can.“
But don't worry if you don't get it all the first time around. Brakefield says Lawyer sent the cast a British newspaper article about Arcadia that said, ”You can't just walk once around the pond and say, "That's pretty.' You can't just see it one time. The more you read it or the more you see it, the intricacies and subtleties come out.“
Though the play captivated Lawyer the first time around, she didn't get it all, she said. But it prompted her to find out about the things that she didn't understand.
”It's for people that are willing to take an intellectual journey,“ Lawyer says, adding that she once read a critic who surmised, ”Great movies don't exist to tell us things we already know.“