Our new west coast correspondent Gabriella West dives into Tom Stoppard’s complex play about… well, we’ll let her explain it.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia was a huge hit when it opened in London in 1993. American Conservatory Theater’s then-newish artistic director Carey Perloff staged it at the nearby Stage Door Theatre in 1995, after a lengthy struggle to acquire the production rights. Perloff was still proving herself as artistic director back then, with punchy productions that included Pinter’s Celebration. She has always had a light hand with heavy, intellectual material, and she nurtured a warm friendship with Stoppard that continues to this day.
Now in her twentieth season as artistic director, Perloff has brought Arcadia back, this time to the much-grander Geary Theater, A.C.T.’s home base. She clearly wanted to do the play justice in a bigger, more beautiful venue.
The set of Arcadia is visually stunning. The play begins in a Palladian country house in England in 1809, a light-filled room with big windows looking out onto the garden. Young Thomasina (Rebekah Brockman) is being instructed in higher mathematics by her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Jack Cutmore-Scott). Hodge is a handsome fellow in his early twenties, a contemporary and friend of Byron.
The material turns risqué almost immediately, as Thomasina demands to know what is a “carnal embrace.” The wife of a visiting poet, Ezra Chater, has been spotted in a compromising position in the garden gazebo with—we soon find out—none other than Septimus Hodge himself. Thomasina is innocent enough to be entirely ignorant of sex, yet is clearly drawn to Septimus. Brockman plays her as sweet and precocious but lacks the pathos for a fully realized character.
Cutmore-Scott has a tricky role here—he has to be both a believable seducer and a believable intellectual. He clearly cares about Thomasina and, unlike Byron, is not a scoundrel, but he’s constantly preoccupied by his own sexual life and seems not to grasp that his charge is a budding genius. The wry comedy of the first act continues, with the angry but cowardly Ezra Chater constantly intruding on Thomasina’s lesson to demand satisfaction from Hodge. Finally, Hodge agrees to a duel. The furious notes that Chater sends Hodge are slipped into Hodge’s copy of Chater’s latest book of poems, The Couch of Eros—which will eventually end up in his friend Lord Byron’s hands.
Think that’s it? Take the jump for Act II….
Cut to the present day, where Hannah Jarvis (Gretchen Egolf) is working on papers in the same room. She’s the author of a much-panned book about Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s jilted lover, and has decided to research a math-obsessed hermit who apparently lived on the estate’s grounds for many years in the same era. Egolf’s caustic, guarded performance as Jarvis anchors the play. She is angular, androgynous, and unbelievably smart, a nice foil to her blustering counterpart, Bernard Nightingale (Andy Murray), who pops in to see if he can do some research on Lord Byron and his role in the 1809 duel. He believes that Byron killed Chater in that duel, and that this is the reason why Byron left England so suddenly. Bernard’s elaborate theory, which we watch him piece together, points up how easy it is for self-deceiving or power-driven people to put their own gloss on the past. Murray energizes his role with splendid comic egotism. Meanwhile, Hannah begins to uncover the truth behind her own theory—which is more complicated than she thought.
There’s so much more to the play—chaos theory, for example. Thomasina’s descendent, Valentine Coverly (Adam O’Byrne), is a young scientist, enamored of Hannah. He has to translate lofty scientific ideas to her. Humanism and hard science mix, sometimes messily, to illuminate the past. The play ends in a gentle, enchanting night scene where stars shine brightly over a pair of dancing couples from each era. It is just before Thomasina’s seventeenth birthday in 1812 and the audience knows that she will not live to see it. But Arcadia only hints at what happens to Thomasina and Septimus. It doesn’t want to face tragedy full on.
This is a handsome production of a complex play, but the intellectual excitement in the actors’ dialogue often fails to translate to the onstage action. What does work in this production is the intense interplay between the two contemporary researchers and the sense of shifting reality between the past and the present: how things that have been lost come slowly sifting to the surface. So much is lost to time, but as one character says, “It’s wanting to know that makes one matter.”
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through June 9
Gabriella West is the author of two novels. She earned an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 1995.