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Shouts and Snores

Tom Stoppard's “Arcadia” is ambitious but exhausting.

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When academics, critics and poets descend upon the English estate of Sidley Park, conversations are decidedly higher brow than most. Jumping between 1809 and 1993, Tom Stoppard's “Arcadia” questions chaos and order, art and science, and stirring jam into rice pudding.

In Richmond Shakespeare's production, Jonathan Conyers plays Septimus Hodge, a tutor with a penchant for a “perpendicular poke.” Conyers gets a few laughs, but plays Hodge too stiffly to be passable as a playboy. Portraying his prodigy pupil, Thomasina Coverly, is Alex Wiles, who puts in a believable performance as the curious teenager.

Playing the modern researchers digging into the time period of Hodge and Coverly are writer Hannah Jarvis and English professor Bernard Nightingale. Jennie Meharg has built an emotional barrier around Hannah, which works, but the audience never sees the cracks in her character's resolve. Adrian Rieder is annoying as Bernard, which works perfectly for the self-indulgent intellectual.

At one point in the play one character explains that his mute brother fled the room because he “hates people shouting.” Well guys, so does the audience. The Gottwald Playhouse at Richmond CenterStage isn't big enough for all the volume these actors put out.

Rebecca Cairns and Ann Hoskins' costumes fit the time period and the characters. Brian C. Barker's chandeliered set works fine, and is definitely an improvement from Richmond Shakespeare's previous ones.

Though Gregg Hillmar's lighting design is pretty, the sun (or the moon, depending on the scene) enters the set from two entirely different angles. Unless the Hillmar is trying to create some sort of inside joke about the period and its love of symmetry, the design makes little sense. The uncredited sound design is extremely poor. Gunshots sound like shutting doors, and the chirping bird sounds of morning go on much too long and are distracting.

But the true problem in this production is Foster Solomon's direction, which has trouble bringing to life this dense tale of critics and intellectuals. Toward the end, at least two audience members have fallen asleep. Chock full of ideas about algebra, sex, Lord Byron, criticism and science, the play gives you the impression you're just watching a lengthy exercise in intellectual masturbation. The show is difficult to follow, and I don't understand the ending until I read a synopsis later. Clocking in at around three hours, “Arcadia” is simply exhausting.

Richmond Shakespeare's “Arcadia” plays through Oct. 30 at Richmond CenterStage. Tickets available at richmondshakespeare.com or by calling 232-4000.

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