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Even at three hours, Blackbird's staging of Tom Stoppard's high-minded comedy-thriller Arcadia is riveting theater

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For a guy who never went to college, Sir Tom Stoppard has done rather nicely for himself. Like, being one of the most important playwrights in the English-speaking world. Some of his most lauded works are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974), and he's contributed in every medium, including screen authorship or co-authorship on 1985's Brazil, 1990's The Russia House and 1998's Shakespeare in Love.

Save for a period when he was investigating more political concerns like human rights and censorship, high intellectual discourse and verbal invention have been Stoppard's metiers. That goes especially for 1993's Arcadia, considered his masterwork by some — and at three hours, long enough to demand attention no matter what the critics say.

Arcadia was mounted locally in 1999 by the community theater ACT I, but if you missed that production, here's another chance to see the play, this time staged by Blackbird Theater. And it's well worth the trip, presuming you like your theater served in tasty morsels of clever drawing-room comedy and larger chunks of satire that deftly lampoon academic research and its nattering nabob practitioners. (Even without that college sheepskin, the playwright seems to know this subject well.)

Director Ted Swindley's bold staging is exceedingly confident, and that may be because we're living in an age in Music City when serious acting talent is everywhere, and ambitious young theater companies (Blackbird, Studio Tenn) keep mounting challenging plays that showcase it.

The setting is Sidley Park, an English country house, around 1809 and later fast-forwarded to the present day. At curtain's rise, we see Thomasina Coverly (Amanda Card McCoy), a 13-year-old with precocious ideas about mathematics. Also present is her facile bon vivant tutor, Septimus Hodge (Jeff Boyet), a friend of the poet Lord Byron (a character never seen, but a strong presence nonetheless). Other members of the household eventually enter and exit, usually with trivial or downright silly concerns — all worth a temporary laugh, but not accounted for fully until much later. As the time period shifts, we witness the academic convergence of a biographer named Hannah Jarvis (Denice Hicks); Bernard Nightingale (David Compton), a literary historian investigating Byron; and a postgraduate student in mathematical biology named Valentine Coverly (Wes Driver). The work of the researchists helps to tie up some of the mysteries of Thomasina's lifetime and drives a great deal of the play's mordant wit.

If that sounds a bit dry for an epic three hours, it might be — in the hands of another writer. But Stoppard is nothing if not masterful, wielding bitchy comic spirit here and absurdist humor there, then joyfully satirizing academia through pleasingly puffed-up characters and sharp dialogue.

Nevertheless, you might want to approach Arcadia as operagoers approach an unfamiliar Italian opus, boning up on the libretto so they don't have to read subtitles at the performance. The first act is an hour and 45 minutes of setup and exposition, all brilliantly stated, but only a liar would claim to grasp all of Stoppard's scientific, literary and historical allusions in a single sitting. More reason, then, to appreciate the actors, whose performances never flag, even when the play seems less penetrable.

McCoy is a delight, rendering her unlikely but articulate early 19th century teenager with convincing charm, and Boyet's silver-tongued roué makes for a captivating portrait. Compton's at times dominating turn is rightly irascible and cocky, and he's backed up competently by Hicks and Driver, the latter Blackbird Theater's artistic director. Shannon Hoppe also gets major stage time as Lady Croom — sometimes winningly, other times unsure. Nibbling patiently and effectively at the edges of many scenes are Britt Byrd and Matthew Raich, in notable lesser roles that are portrayed with welcome credibility.

Brad Forrister, Scott Rice, John Silvestro and Craige Hoover play worthy cameos.

Save for its less-than-sumptuous seats, Shamblin Theater continues to prove its mettle as a good place to see drama, and Lipscomb faculty member David Hardy conceived the elegant scenic and lighting designs. This situation once more calls to mind the value of aspiring theater ensembles hooking up with universities, where facilities exist to deliver full-service theatrical arts. The fabulous costume designer June Kingsbury once again puts in a gifted appearance, and Shelby June Flowers' musical choices and Larry Brown's sound effects are subtle and appropriate.

Even when it's funny — which is often — Arcadia is no simple walk in the park. But for the verbally inclined, it is a pastoral paradise.


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