By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Carey Perloff
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco
May 16-June 16, 2013
Arcadia, a name taken from a town of reportedly happy people in ancient Greece, has come to mean a place of general innocence and peace. “Arcadia,” the title of what is arguably the finest thing Tom Stoppard ever wrote, is a continual theatrical source of wonder and joy— forget about the innocence and peace, of which it has precious little.
There is so much to this play, it bears repeating. The current iteration at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater is my third, the first being the original London production, and it never fails to enchant and puzzle and stimulate. Under the direction of ACT artistic head Carey Perloff, who has a close association with Stoppard and his work, an excellent cast unveils the mysteries of his dramatic universe from Newtonian physics to the Romantic poets; Fermat’s Last Theorem to landscape gardening; Chaos Theory to sex…and love… and more sex. Unlike the preternaturally gifted young heroine, Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman as innocence awakened by knowledge), you may not come out any wiser than you entered, but you sure will have a lot to think about on the way home.
Lest this sound daunting, know that “Arcadia,” like much of Stoppard’s work, mixes a healthy dash of humor into its intellectual cocktail. If the brainy stuff begins to feel like a bit too much, just take a deep breath until the next joke or zinger comes along. It all evens out in the end.
The action toggles back and forth from the early 19th Century — the time of Byron and Beethoven, when the Romantic spirit sought to vanquish the Classicism that had dominated the artistic and intellectual world for centuries before — and the present, when scientists and literary researchers are using the tools of the electronic revolution to unearth the secrets of the past. It all takes place at an English estate, beautifully rendered by set designer Douglas W. Schmidt as a classically proportioned room with windows open to a wild Romantic landscape beyond.
And landscapes are an important part of the mix, as the fantastic gardens of famed designers like Capability Brown (in this case, a certain Richard Noakes, played by the always-reliable Anthony Fusco) came into fashion in the early 1800s, running roughshod over the neat classical “English garden.”
Thomasina, the 13-year-old daughter of the house, and her tutor Septimus (Jack Cutmore-Scott) study in this room, covering an eclectic syllabus of Latin, mathematics, literature, science and sex — the latter represented by Septimus’ casual affair with a lady houseguest, his fixation on Thomasina’s elegant mother, Lady Croom, played most elegantly by Julia Coffey, and, not the least, Thomasina’s own crush on the handsome tutor. Meanwhile Noakes digs up the gardens outside.
In our own time, Hannah Jarvis, an author, has come to the estate in search of some historical background for her next book. Gretchen Egolf plays the role with style and wit, aided by the Coverly heirs, the pretty airhead Chloe (Allegra Rose Edwards), and her brothers, the handsome mathematician Valentine (Adam O’Byrne) and the silent genius Gus (Titus Tompkins), both of whom are a little in love with Hannah. Then, like a sudden summer storm, Bernard Nightingale (the wondrous Andy Murray, too long absent from Bay Area stages) bursts upon the scene. A self-important university don, looking for new evidence about his beloved Lord Byron, Bernard, who has been dismissive of Hannah’s work in the press, loses no time in reconstructing the past from fragmentary evidence that Byron, who was Septimus’ classmate at Cambridge, visited the estate, wreaked romantic havoc and subsequently fled the country. Bernard also seduces Chloe into the bargain and is forced to flee in his turn. The cast is rounded out by a very funny Nicholas Pelczar as a failed poet and wronged husband, Nick Gabriel as one of the guys what wronged him and Ken Ruta as the bumbling butler.
As scenes from the past intercut with those from the present, it becomes apparent that Bernard has it all wrong — and for a time, only the audience is in on the joke. And time enters into the mix as the story goes back and forth in the centuries and certain motifs like seduction and genius begin to repeat themselves under the Coverly roof. Maybe we can’t turn time back, restore letters that have been burned, swallow words that have been uttered, but we can continue to seek. “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” says the wise young Thomasina.
It all ends in one of the most enchanting denouements in all theater. The final scene will have you waltzing out of the house on the wings of love — whether you can understand Fermat’s Theorem or not.