Set in two different centuries, Tom’s Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is a smart romantic play that uses garden design as metaphor for progress, at A.C.T. through June 9, 2013
I saw Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia for the first time, when it opened last Wednesday at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) and, already, I’m already planning to go again. It’s gardening season and time is precious but I was seduced by this dazzling production whose action that moves between the 19th century and the present and its riveting exploration of how big ideas take root, blossom, and then, become compost. The repartee and on-stage chemistry of the fine actors, the gorgeous set design and overall flow of the performance added up to an unforgettable evening. I was hooked once I discovered that, at its core, Arcadia uses tensions in garden design as a metaphor for progress. Frequently, when I describe plays to friends who live up in the wine country, no matter how good the production is, they bemoan the drive in to San Francisco, especially during gardening season. Well, here it is!—a play brimming with ideas that will have you cutting your precious antique roses with renewed zeal because you’re on fire with ideas and how gardens through time embody them. Whether you’re an orderly classicist who believes in preserving the structure of things or you’re more of a romantic who views structure as a straightjacket, and are constantly tossing out the old rules in favor of the new, there’s something intoxicating in Stoppard’s romantic story that will leave you exquisitely satisfied and slightly perplexed that you haven’t quite caught it all.
Set in Sidley Park, an English stately home, in two different centuries, the play opens in Edwardian 1809, much in the fashion of an Oscar Wilde drawing-room farce. The first thing you notice is Douglas W. Schmidt’s expansive drawing room set, appointed with picturesque trees that wind elegantly around the room. Septimus Hodge (played by Jack Cutmore-Scott), a young science graduate, is resident tutor to Thomasina Coverley (played by Rebekah Brockman), the precocious 13-year old daughter of the owners of Sidley Park. The two are cozied up at a wooden table. Reading through her Latin homework, she asks him, quite innocently, to explain what “carnal embrace” means. When he tells her, she is appalled. “Now whenever I do it, I shall think of you!” she gasps. “Is it like love?” He replies: “Oh no my lady, it is much nicer than that.”
Turns out that Septimus has been practicing that on which he expounds—he was seen having a “perpendicular poke” in the gazebo with Mrs. Chater, the wife of a visiting poet. Their tutoring session is interrupted by a note from Mr. Chater, demanding he receive “satisfaction” for his wounded honor in the form of a duel. Septimus moans: “Mrs. Chater demanded satisfaction and now you demand satisfaction. I cannot spend my day and night satisfying the demands of the Chater family.” When Mr Chater arrives in a fury, Septimus asserts that he won’t engage in a pistol-fight to defend the honor of “a woman whose reputation could not be adequately defended with a platoon of musketry deployed by rota.” Septimus is also pursuing Lady Croom, Thomasina’s pert mother, but she has her eyes fixed on nabbing Lord Byron, Septimus’ college pal.
The play then shifts abruptly to the 1990s, and a more realist style. In the same house, and using the same set, a historian, Hannah Jarvis, is delving into Sidley Park’s history, with the permission of the Croom family. She is immersed in her research and in piecing together stories from the past.
She is interrupted by her rival, a patronizing old English fart, Bernard Nightingale, who has discovered a note that Chater wrote to Septimus in an old book. He is convinced that the note was written by Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, who happened to be visiting Sidley Park that weekend— and that he fought in the duel and killed Chater. He posits that this would explain why Byron fled to France in 1810 and asserts that he is hot on the trail of “the literary discovery of the century” which will make him a media sensation.
Those are the bare bones. The action unfolds from 1809 to 1812, while the characters in the late 20th century attempt to untangle what happened by reviewing what they know about their lives. The stories alternate until, in the final scene, all the characters appear on stage together, waltzing past each other, unseen.
Rebekah Brockman delivers an astounding and entirely believable performance as Thomasina, the innocent girl genius, the heart and soul of the play. Her natural chemistry with her tutor, Septimus, Jack Cutmore-Scott, is a delight. As he educates her in the basics of Newton’s laws of physics, she quickly demonstrates that her grasp of the implications of these principles far exceeds that of her adult peers. She’s able to cut to chase using very familiar examples, making astounding connections between seemingly unrelated things—“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. (1.1).” Later, she makes observations about what happens with free will in a world where we are all merely atoms following the laws of motion in Newton’s universe. It is she who leads Septimus to see the flaws in Newton, and he, in turn, who falls for her.
The present day couple—Hannah and Bernard, played by Gretchen Egolf and Andy Murray—due to their lack of on stage chemistry, is less dynamic, though they both, as feuding scholars, represent interesting ideas. She is a model of classical reserve while he, boisterous and passionate, follows his gut instincts and prefers to reject the hard evidence that leads to the conclusion that Byron was not the killer he initially thought him to be.
And the garden? The garden at Sidley Park is never actually seen but its symbolic presence is felt throughout the play, as styles (Romanticism and Classicism) and their attenuate ideas butt up against each other.
Says Perloff: “To me Arcadia is the perfect play: sexy, subtle, romantic, bracing, hilarious, and complex, rewarding multiple viewings and multiple explorations. When I directed the show at A.C.T. in 1995, the Geary Theater was still undergoing repairs from the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, so we have never done it on The Geary stage. Now we’ve gathered an incredible company and it is truly a fulfillment of a dream for me to bring Arcadia back to A.C.T.”
More on the origin of “Arcadia”— Arcadia is part of the Peloponnese peninsula and in European Renaissance arts was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness, even an imaginary idyllic paradise, immortalized by Virgil’s Eclogues, and later by Jacopo Sannazaro in his pastoral masterpiece, Arcadia (1504). The Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” which is usually
interpreted to mean “Even in Arcadia there am I” (“I” meaning Death), is a memento mori, a cautionary reminder of the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. The phrase is most often associated with a 1647 painting by Nicolas Poussin, also known as “The
Arcadian Shepherds.” In the painting, the phrase appears as an inscription on a tomb discovered by youthful figures in classical garb.
Best Garden Quote: “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look – Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Salvator Rosa. It’s the Gothic novel expressed in landscape. Everything but vampires.” (Hannah 1.2)
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with a 15 minute intermission
CAST: Rebekah Brockman is Thomasina Coverly; Jack Cutmore-Scott is Septimus Hodge; Julia Coffey is Lady Croom; Allegra Rose Edwards is Chloë Coverly; Gretchen Egolf is Hannah Jarvis; Anthony Fusco is Richard Noakes; Nick Gabriel is Captain Brice; Andy Murray is Bernard Nightingale; Adam O’Byrne is Valentine Coverly); Nicholas Pelczar is Ezra Chater; Ken Ruta is Jellaby.
CREATIVE TEAM: by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Carey Perloff. Douglas W. Schmidt (scenic designer), Alex Jaeger (costume designer), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer), Jake Rodriguez (sound designer).
InterACT Programming for Arcadia— InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre. Visit act-‐sf.org/interact to learn more about subscribing to these events throughout the season:
Audience Exchanges: Tuesday, May 28, at 7 p.m. | Sun., June 2, at 2 p.m. | Wed., June 5, at 2 p.m. Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre. After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.
OUT with A.C.T.: Wednesday, May 29, following the 8 p.m. performance. The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty.
Wine Series: Tuesday, June 4, at 7 p.m. Before the show, raise a glass at this wine tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local wineries.
PlayTime: Saturday, June 8, at 2 p.m. Before this matinee performance, get hands-‐on with theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive workshop.
Bike to the Theater Nights: Thursday, May 23. Providing a greener alternative to theater transportation, A.C.T. and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offer free valet bike parking, as well as a special discount on tickets, for these select performances.
Details: Arcadia runs through June 9, 2013 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances are 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $95, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org .
A.C.T.’s 2013–14 season: Seven incredible productions await A.C.T. patrons in 2013-14, including the West Coast premiere of Tony Award–winning director Frank Galati’s acclaimed new staging of 1776; the Northern California premiere of David Ives’s captivating cat-‐and-‐mouse drama, Venus in Fur; James Fenton’s beautiful reinvention of The Orphan of Zhao, starring the inimitable stage and film star BD Wong; and a sumptuous production of George Bernard Shaw’s political comedy Major Barbara. The remaining three shows will be announced at a later date. In addition to the seven-‐play subscription season, A.C.T. is happy to welcome back the Bay Area’s favorite holiday tradition, the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, after its record-‐breaking run last season. To subscribe or for more information, please click here, or call 415.749.2250.