It's a common, if not entirely fair, knock on Tom Stoppard that his intellectually omnivorous plays have more head than heart — an artificial division upended by the questions raised by his best works. In "Arcadia," now receiving a beguiling production under Jessica Hutchinson's direction with New Leaf Theatre, Stoppard anatomizes the uncertain terrain between the daunting forces of science, history and art and how our own small but stout attempts to understand these elements reverberate in our present relationships.
Stoppard's conceit is to place the action of two eras in one English drawing room, with increasing overlap between 1809 and 1993 (the year the play premiered). Thomasina Coverly (Hilary Williams), a precocious 13-year-old in Derbyshire's Sidley Park, discovers the seeds of chaos theory at the dawn of the Romantic era under the tutelage of Septimus Hodge (Billy Fenderson), whose dalliances with married women compete with his intellectual pursuits and complicate his standing in the home run by Thomasina's mother, the imperious Lady Croom (Saren Nofs-Snyder).
Flash to the late 20th century, when a smug Byron scholar, Bernard (Dan Granata) believes he's discovered a lost chapter in the poet's life, while skeptical fellow academic Hannah (Marsha Harman) tries to uncover the identity of the hermit who lived in a hut in the estate's Gothic garden in the last century and left behind a now-lost trove of seemingly incomprehensible mathematical scribblings. The connections between these events become clear to the audience, even as the characters veer off into blind alleys and leaps of faith, both intellectual and romantic.
New Leaf has always managed to make inventive use of its venue — a small paneled room in the Lincoln Park Cultural Center — and the intimacy of the space and the ever-expanding palette of ideas Stoppard tosses into the mix (Enlightenment versus Romantic philosophy, Newtonian versus Einsteinian physics, academic status-jockeying) mesh beautifully here.
In a generally top-notch ensemble, it's the modern-day characters who at least initially resonate best, particularly in the exchanges between Harman's acerbic Hannah and Granata's sweatily exuberant Bernard. But contrary to the second law of thermodynamics (which plays a major thematic role here), this smart and emotionally satisfying production gains heat and energy over time.
Through June 16 at Lincoln Park Cultural Center, 2045 N. Lincoln Park West; $25 at 773-980-6391 or newleaftheatre.org
Another age of chaos unfolds in "Henry V," which receives a solid, if somewhat undercooked, staging by Brian Pastor with Promethean Theatre Ensemble. By incorporating a multimedia backdrop of images from a panoply of past conflicts, Pastor's production attempts to bring a contemporary focus to the story of the onetime miscreant prince of "Henry IV, Part One and Two" and his bloody incursion into France.
It's only partly successful, because by suggesting so many possible parallels with other wars, none fully resonates. (There were, after all, more compelling reasons for opposing the Axis forces in World War II than there were for Shakespeare's king to invade his neighbor.) Henry's fluctuations between vengeance and mercy and the class divisions that guide those shifts do come through from time to time, though Nick Lake's sovereign tends to remain at a cool remove even in the heat of battle. Jeremy Trager's fussbudget dauphin and Judy Lea Steele as Alice, the sly lady's maid to the French princess who will eventually become one of Henry's Gallic acquisitions, add wry humor.
It's an ambitious undertaking for a small company, and the astringent spareness of Pastor's staging, which uses only a handful of props and set pieces, allows one to track the story with ease. But by splitting our focus between the foregrounded live actions and the still images behind them, we miss out on some of the deeper resonances of the story.
Through June 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.; $20 at 773-935-6875 or athenaeumtheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now