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'Arcadia' adds up to a great drama

It's safe to say there has never been a better play about iterated algorithms than ''Arcadia."

Fortunately, for those of us who struggled with elementary algebra, the superlatives don't stop there. Tom Stoppard's 1993 work ranks with Tony Kushner's ''Angels in America" as one of the best end-of-the-millennium plays in the English language. You don't need to know chaos theory from a Byron poem to see that ''Arcadia" is dealing with universal issues.

One more superlative. ''Arcadia" is the most fully realized drama I've seen at the Publick Theatre. It's a brightly acted, energetically directed journey through Stoppard's mind-bending terrain. You'll be scratching your head from time to time, but that becomes part of the fun of making your way through the underbrush to the gorgeous vistas that Stoppard paints.

The two-tiered story is set on a large English country estate at both the beginning of the 19th century, when the Enlightenment was giving way to Romanticism, and the end of the 20th century, an age of uncertainty about almost everything. In the 19th century, Thomasina, a precocious teenager, flirts with her tutor, Septimus Hodge. He's trying to teach her about Fermat's theorems. She wants to know the meaning of ''carnal embrace" after hearing that one of the guests was discovered in such a position in the gazebo. Hodge, it will turn out, is a friend of Byron's and no stranger to carnal embracing.

Meanwhile, Thomasina is no slouch when it comes to Fermat. We see her intuit philosophical and mathematical constructs that are way ahead of her time.

Women, never mind girls, weren't taken seriously back then, though, and a 20th-century writer, Hannah Jarvis, has experienced some condescension of her own. She has come to the Derbyshire house to write a book about a hermit on the premises whom she sees as representative of the extremes of Romanticism. A scholar, Bernard Nightingale, has arrived to try to corroborate whether Byron was the author of a pair of poetry reviews he's discovered.

Stoppard uses these characters to debate matters of free will and determinism, sex and sexism, life and ''losing heat," and myriad other topics.

Throughout, the playwright's love of language is its own reward, beginning with a Wilde-ean salvo when the pompous Lord Chater makes an accusation to Septimus: ''You have insulted my wife in the gazebo." The tutor replies, ''You are mistaken. I made love to your wife in the gazebo."

But Stoppard, who has frequently been accused of being overly cerebral, can break your heart as well as tickle your fancy. By tying together the story of Thomasina's life and Hannah's discovery of the hermit's identity, he makes such a rich case for gathering rosebuds while ye may that the final waltz takes on cosmic significance.

The Publick's setting along the Charles works beautifully for the play. Diego Arciniegas, the head of the Publick, not only directed, but codesigned the set so that you look through the columns of the house and see the flora and fauna behind it as part of the Derbyshire estate.

Arciniegas has also assembled a likable cast, including Publick producing director Susanne Nitter, Nigel Gore, and Bill Mootos. More impressively, Arciniegas has rounded up several talented members of a new generation of Boston theater -- Caroline Lawton, Lewis Wheeler, Eric Hamel, Ellen Adair, and Joy Lamberton -- all of whom turn in strong performances. Given the complexities of Stoppard's language, that's quite a feat.

On the minus side, almost all the acting is a bit exaggerated, particularly Gore's. Perhaps that's partly a result of having to compete with the powerboats going by.

The Publick has historically had trouble putting together strong Shakespearean casts. But Arciniegas's first attempt at straying from the Bard is a success (''Comedy of Errors" begins July 21). This isn't the most heavenly production of the play I've seen, but the Publick certainly captures a part of paradise with this ''Arcadia."

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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