ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

Rebekah Brockman is brainy Thomasina Coverly and Jack Cutmore-Scott is her ambitious tutor, Septimus Hodge, in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” directed by Carey Perloff, through June 9, 2013.  Photo by Kevin Berne.

Rebekah Brockman is brainy Thomasina Coverly and Jack Cutmore-Scott is her ambitious tutor, Septimus Hodge. Their smart repartee is divine and their on stage chemistry is magic in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” directed by Carey Perloff, through June 9, 2013. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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.” 

(from L-R): Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge), Adam O’Byrne (Valentine Coverly), and Gretchen Egolf (Hannah Jarvis) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

(from L-R): Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge), Adam O’Byrne (Valentine Coverly), and Gretchen Egolf (Hannah Jarvis) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

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.

Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

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. performanceThe 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.

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May 28, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: A.C.T.’s heartwarming performance of Dickens’ holiday classic “Christmas Carol” through December 24 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter is Ebenezer Scrooge and Rebekah Brockman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, playing November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter is Ebenezer Scrooge and Rebekah Brockman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, who first appears on a swing. “A Christas Carol” runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Bah Humbug!  It’s time again for those immortal and endearing words.  With dozens of productions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” opening this holiday season,  one that really stands out in the Bay Area is A.C.T.’s (American Conservatory Theatre), which opened last Tuesday and runs through Christmas Eve.

Now in its 36th year at A.C.T.,  A Christmas Carol  is thoroughly enjoyable, offering fine acting, vivid characterizations, dazzling special effects, lush staging and beautiful period costumes.  Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh in 2005, and directed by Domenique Lozano, with music by Karl Lundeberg, this lively version stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption but it has some updates and cast changes that keep it fresh.   The production runs two hours (with intermission) and the evening show begins an hour early, at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day through Christmas Eve.  Combine it with a walk through bustling and gorgeously lit Union Square en route to A.C.T.’s historic Geary Theatre and it’s a very doable evening outing for families or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a longer drive home.

We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call and it rings ever true today. Wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy.  “The only thing more ridiculous than Merry Christmas is falling in love!” sputters crotchety James Carpenter early in the play.  Carpenter, now in his 6th year in the role, keeps adding new layers of complexity to Scrooge.  This year, he plays him as a member of the 1 percent who is willfully and persistently ignorant to the suffering of his fellow human beings and who is completely unaware of how closed off, disagreeable and unkempt he has become over the years.

 By contrast, Bob Cratchit (Nick Pelczar), Scrooge’s overworked clerk, hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources—a heart of gold and a large loving family. Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Pelczar, whose radiance is matched by Delia MacDougall’s portrayal of his equally good-hearted wife, Anne Cratchit. The Cratchit’s material hardship makes the wealthy Scrooge seem all the more despicable, even pitiable, because he cannot enjoy or share the massive fortune he has amassed. Dickens shows not only Scrooge’s miserliness but also how it would come to ruin the lives his beloved sister’s descendants and harm his impoverished clerk’s family. While writing his classic, Dickens realized that if Scrooge’s imagination could be stimulated, it would be possible for him to wake up on Christmas morning an entirely new man and that’s the message of the play. Scrooge’s remarkable transformation—ideological, ethical and emotional—is brought about by the visits of four ghosts on Christmas Eve—Jacob Marley (his former business partner) and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future.

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) haunts Scrooge on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) haunts Scrooge on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The visits of these ghosts, who lead Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life, represent the production’s most creative parts. Setting the bar for ghastly ghost behavior highlighted by special effects is the Ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Ken Ruta, who originated this role in the 2005 production. Amidst billowing clouds of colored smoke, he robustly pops out of the headboard of Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and issuing warnings and looking like death-warmed over with his crazy frizzed out hair.  Ruta replaces the revered Jack Willis who is over at Berkeley Rep playing a meddling Buddhist monk in Mary Zimmermann’s adaptation of The White Snake.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, is played humorously again by A.C.T.’s Omozé Idehenre who appears in striated green velvet as a Bacchic spirit of abundance.  One of the production’s unique touches is that the ghosts are, at times, suspended above Scrooge on swings, adding a playful touch.

And gauging’s the Bay Area’s love of puppets, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is spot on—a giant black bat-like puppet apparition that fills the stage and moves its appendages in and out as if it could readily swallow someone up.  It also serves as a screen. As projections of the harrowing future that await Scrooge flash rapidly before him, Scrooge gets his final wake-up call.

Carmen Steele is Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, and has a wonderful stage presence.  When Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present, he learns just how ill Tim really is, and that Tim will die unless he receives treatment (which the family cannot afford due to Scrooge’s miserliness). When he’s next visited by The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Tim’s little wooden crutch is all that is shown because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning. And change he does!   He gives his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dilber, a real jolt by thanking her, paying her generously, and giving her the holidays off.  Sharon Lockwood, who brilliantly channels Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara, makes Mrs. Dilber one of the most endearing characters of all.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter (L) is Ebenezer Scrooge and Carmen Steele (R) is Tiny Tim Cratchit.  Runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter (L) is Ebenezer Scrooge and Carmen Steele (R) is Tiny Tim Cratchit. Runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography, as always, is fantastic.  There’s lots of lighthearted and fluid dancing which showcases Beaver Bauer’s beautiful period costumes and Caniparoli has interjected some new funk and spunk into the scary ghosts.  Caniparoli, who is currently dancing the role of the toymaker, Drosselmeyer, in SF Ballet’s treasured Nutcracker, really understands how much enjoyment an audience gets from the gestures communicated through dance. Under his direction, the lively ball at the Fezziwig Warehouse, with its new cartoon-like sets, was delightful and Act II’s lively “Waltz of the Opulent Fruit” was charmingly executed by six young Bay Area actors who had been transformed into plump and colorful French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions.  Their festive jig, which showcases composer Karl Lundeberg’s talent, is always an audience favorite.

The message is profoundly clear in this play of new beginnings: generosity comes in many forms and its rewards are priceless.  Scrooge doesn’t so much need to celebrate Christmas (but when he finally does, he does it admirably) as to open his heart which enables to him to both give and receive…which is the one of the joys of Christmas. 

The Dickens novella that inspired it all is at the Morgan Library: “A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens and published in somber Victorian-era Britain in December 1843, when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were just being introduced. This was before Christmas became today’s highly commercial venture but also during a time when there wasn’t much gleeful celebration. The novella was an instant hit, largely for its memorable characters and its realistic depictions of the hardships of the working class which people related to. It infused people with hope during a stifling period and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America. When it was first published, its 6,000 copies printed up in time for Christmas, sold out. Because Dickens had selected lavish drawings in red and green ink by John Leech, one of the Britain’s best illustrators, the book was a financial bust. It went on to become a literary staple, so Dickens fared well but it was also pirated immediately after publication. It was shortly adapted to the stage and the rest is history.

The financier J.P. Morgan bought the manuscript in 1890 and it has been housed at 225 Madison Avenue, in Pierpont Morgan’s historic Library.  The 66 page handwritten manuscript, written in large scribbling cursive in just 6 days, is exhibited each holiday season at The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.  As a matter of expedience, only one page is put on view each year, under glass. This year, page 61 is on display, which is the first page of the final Stave (Stave V), titled “The End of It.”  This is the scene in which Scrooge, awaking after the visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, celebrates his reprieve. (Click here to be directed to that page.) The entire original manuscript, along with a very useful audio option that allows readers to hear a page read aloud is available online here courtesy of the Morgan Library.

Run-time A.C.T.’s  A Christmas Carol:  Two hours including one 15 minute intermission.

Cast:  James Carpenter (Ebenezer Scrooge), Ken Ruta (Ghost of Christmas Past), Nick Pelcar (Bob Cratchit, Delia MacDougall (Anne Cratchit), Jarion Monroe (Mr. Fezziwig), Sharon Lockwood (Mrs. Fezziwig), Omozé Idehenre (Ghost of Christmas Present).  The adult cast also includes Cindy Goldfield, Howard Swain, Arwen Anderson, Stephanie DeMott.

The Christmas Carol cast also includes six third-year students from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program, many of whom traditionally receive their Actors’ Equity cards as a result of their participation in A Christmas Carol —Rebekah Brockman, Raymond Castelán, Allegra Rose Edwards, Nick Steen, Tyee J. Tilghman and Titus Tompkins. And a record 27 young actors from the A.C.T. Young Conservatory (YC) are participating in the production—Graham Bennett, Frank Demma, Ian DeVaynes, Chloe Durham, Jack Estes, Dashiell Ferrero, Elke Janssen, Leo Jergovic, Louis Kehoe, Sydney Kistler, Shalan Lee, Madelyn Levine, Elsie Lipson, Katerine Liviakis, Sarah Magen, Timothy Marston, Rachel Metzger, Kai Nau, Evelyn Ongpin, Gavin Pola, Kennedy Roberts, Lindsay Sohn, Carmen Steele, Sasha Steiner, Emma Sutherland, Samuel Sutton, and Seth Weinfield.

Creative Team:  John Arnone (set design), Beaver Bauer (costume design), Karl Lundeberg (original music), Val Caniparoli (choreography), Nancy Schertler (lighting design), and Jake Rodriguez (sound design), and Robert Rutt (musical direction).

Details: A Christmas Carol runs through December 24, 2012 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances:

7 p.m.: December 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22

5:30 p.m.: December 16, 23

2 p.m.: December 12, 15, 21, 22

1 p.m.: December 16, 23, 24

Tickets: $20-$95, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415)439-2473.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted.  Performances sell out quickly.  Act now for the best seats !

December 10, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment