It's always dismaying when audiences (or, God forbid, critics) dismiss a play as too heady or highfalutin to be accessible. Theater can and should be a learning experience, and woe betide the art form if it ever cracks under the pressure to pander to the general public's cranial comfort zones. Yet every once in a while, a show comes along like Mad Cow Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia that all but dares you to jump onboard the lowbrow bandwagon.
Stoppard's acclaimed but esoteric text (a possible alternate title: Arcania) has some upper-class preoccupations on its mind, including poetry, mathematics, quantum physics and even the marvels of landscaping. All of this drawing-room pedagogy is hung on a thankfully engaging mystery plot, in which the modern inhabitants of an English estate try to piece together the artistic, academic and amorous activities of ancestors who loved and argued on the premises some 200 years earlier. In both eras which are depicted in alternating and finally overlapping narratives the characters are largely defined by their areas of intellectual interest. There's a scientist, a junior math whiz, a literature expert and more, all of them ready to assert the primacy of their pet theories at a moment's notice.
It's risky, potentially alienating material, and the Mad Cow interpretation fails to make the erudite pursuits that matter to Stoppard's characters matter to us. From time to time, an academic debate turns heated, and we're left wondering what pointed observation caused the flare-up, since no line of dialogue is delivered with a particularly greater sense of import than the one that preceded it.
After an initial flirtation with punning whimsy, the show finds a tone of scholarly preciousness and more or less stays there for a taxing three hours. Promising constructs like Jay T. Becker's Septimus Hodge, a 19th-century tutor with a gently comic mien, cede ground to drab creations like Hannah Jarvis, a modern-day professor who Jamie Middleton plays with monotonous, taut-lipped belligerence. Several performers seem in perpetual danger of tripping over their unwieldy monologues and British accents, lending the impression of a troupe that memorized headfuls of dramaturgy and hauled them out on stage before their characters' interactions felt natural.
The human factor rises substantially in Act Two, when some honest-to-goodness activity finally intrudes on the draining discourse. By that time, though well past the two-hour mark some of the less intrepid problem solvers in the audience have abandoned their seats in frustration and shuffled off for points unknown. Again, I don't condone the behavior but I understand.