In mythology, Arcadia is utopia, Eden, Pan’s paradise, a virgin wilderness with nymphs frolicking in lush forests, that longed-for pastoral setting in perfect harmony with nature.
The setting for Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” now playing at ACT, is a late 18th-early 19th century English nobleman’s country estate, as near to paradise in setting as a wealthy peer could imagine or construct. But their society is replete with many snakes and temptations.
A mathematical prodigy of a girl named Thomasina is tutored by a handsome, erudite young man who all the visiting women try to seduce including the mistress of the manor, the young girl’s mother. The character Thomasina is played by MFA student Rebecca Brockman who may be on the path to quick stardom that Annette Bening followed by playing leads while still a student.
Poets visit, including an unseen Lord Byron who is nonetheless a character in the dramedy.
In counterpoint, we have a second cast of contemporary literary historians trying to reconstruct the history and story surrounding Thomasina and Byron, and a mathematician who happens to be working on mathematical theories similar to those with which Thomasina experimented.
Time warps with one cast exiting as another enters, and sometimes both inhabit the stage while still in their respective eras.
It is a play thick with thought, with tortuous turns that need an audience member’s attention to negotiate, with language that floats loftily yet intertwined with many expletives, with high comedic humor and repartee—in other words, it’s a Tom Stoppard play.
It is directed by ACT Artistic Director Cary Perloff who had much correspondence and a meeting with Tom Stoppard when the theatre previously produced this play during its post-earthquake reconstruction.
If you go to the theatre “to be entertained,” this is not for you. If you go to the theatre to be illuminated and titillated with high thought and titillating repartee, then don’t hesitate.
The single set of the mansion’s study is extraordinary with arcadian murals and a skylight. The cast is highly polished, and the casting is spot-on. The costumes are eye-pleasing and accurate to the period.
“Arcadia” is what I call a doppio espresso play, for you need your wits sharp to follow and appreciate it. Though I have no hearing loss and sat in the orchestra, I opted for the free Sennheiser hearing devices (available in the lobby), which made the quick British Received line-delivery and the concepts (Fermat’s last theorem, graph theory, the intricacies of historical detective work) much more readily understandable.
“Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard
at American Conservatory Theatre through June 9th
Directed by Carey Perloff
CAST: Rebekah Brockman†, Julia Coffey*, Jack Cutmore-Scott*, Allegra Rose Edwards†, Gretchen Egolf*, Anthony Fusco*,Nick Gabriel*, Andy Murray*, Adam O’Byrne*, Nicholas Pelczar*, Ken Ruta*,Titus Tompkins†
(*member, Actors’ Equity Association, † Student, MFA program at ACT & AEA Intern)
Designers: Douglas W. Schmidt (Scenic Designer), Alex Jaeger (Costume Designer), Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer), Jake Rodriguez (Sound Designer), Michael Roth (Original Music).
More info at www.act-sf.org