The Ticket: “Arcadia” at American Conservatory Theater
Reviewed by Gabriella West
Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” was a huge hit when it opened in London in 1993. A couple of years later, the 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. Carey was still proving herself as artistic director back then, with punchy productions that included Harold Pinter’s “Celebration.” She has always had a light hand with heavy, intellectual material, and she nurtured a warm friendship with Tom that continues to this day.
Now in her 20th season heading A.C.T. as artistic director, Carey 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. We open in a Palladian country house in England in 1809, a light-filled room with big windows looking out onto the garden. Young Thomasina (performed by Rebekah Brockman) is being instructed in higher mathematics by her tutor, Septimus Hodge (performed by Jack Cutmore-Scott). Septimus is a handsome fellow in his early twenties, a contemporary and friend of the poet Lord Byron. The material turns risqué almost immediately, as Thomasina demands to know what a “carnal embrace” is. 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 himself. Thomasina is innocent enough to be entirely ignorant of sex, yet is clearly drawn to Septimus. Rebekah plays Thomasina as sweet and precocious, but I felt that there could have been more pathos to her role; it was somehow left unexpressed.
Jack 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 Septimus. Finally, Septimus agrees to a duel. The furious notes that Ezra sends Septimus are slipped into his copy of Ezra’s latest book of poems, The Couch of Eros—which will eventually end up in his friend Byron’s hands.
Cut to the present day, where Hannah Jarvis (performed by 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. Gretchen’s caustic, guarded performance as Hannah anchors the play. She is angular, androgynous, and unbelievably smart, a nice foil to her blustering counterpart, Bernard Nightingale (performed by 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 Ezra 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. Andy 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 (performed by 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 was a handsome production of a complex play, but I felt the intellectual excitement in the actors’ dialogue often failed to translate to the onstage action. I rarely felt moved by the ideas. What worked best for me in Arcadia was 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.”
“Arcadia’s” run was extended through June 16 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., SF. Tickets are $20-$95.
Gabriella West is the author of two novels. She earned an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 1995. Her site is GabriellaWest.net.