Stunning Arcadia returns to ACT

Jun 06

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Julia Coffey (left) is Lady Croom, Nick Gabriel (center) is Captain Brice and Nicholas Pelczar is Ezra Chater in ACT’s production of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, directed by Carey Perloff. Below: Ken Ruta (left) is butler Jellaby and Jack Cutmore-Scott is tutor Septimus Hodge. Photos by Kevin Berne.

The ideas are as big as the heart in Tom Stoppard’s glorious Arcadia, a play that seems only to get better with time.

When American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Carey Perloff first directed the play in 1995 at the Stage Door Theatre, the production and the play came off beautifully and with more warmth than the chilly 1995 production at New York’s Lincoln Center. But now that Perloff has revived the play at the Geary Theater, it’s like switching from an cozy, old-fashioned living room TV to high-def, widescreen wonder.

The curtain comes up on a goergeous, glass-domed room at Sidley Park, a lush Derbyshire country estate (the set is by Douglas W. Schmidt and the sumptuous lighting is by Robert Wierzel). The room is sparsely furnished – a table, some chairs, a book stand – but the large windows and the trees painted on the walls give the perfect impression of opulence amid nature and the attempt to turn nature into another form of opulent art.

In Stoppard’s carefully constructed world, this room holds two time periods. The first is the early 19th century and the other is present day. We get a period piece and a contemporary comedy/drama, and by the end of this nearly three-hour experience, the two have fused into one of the most satisfying, inspiring, poignant endings in 20th-century drama.

Among Stoppard’s great qualities, and it’s something Perloff’s production accentuates, is that he has the power to make his audience feel smart. And fully immersed/involved in his world. Arcadia is intellectual in the extreme – some of its funniest moments come from skewering ego-inflated academic types and the rich mixture of math, science, history and art can be dizzying. But Stoppard never lets the brainy stuff overtake the play. He explains just enough to keep the threads of the storyline taut, and without dumbing down anything, he engages us in complex scientific thought by comparing certain theories to jam being stirred in pudding or a cup of hot tea (and, it turns out, everything in the universe) coming to room temperature all by itself.

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Because Perloff and her wonderful cast are so in control of Stoppard’s world, the intellectual side of the play just makes its more human and comic aspects all the more alive and exciting. In the early 1800s, a 13-year-old girl named Thomasina Coverly (the remarkable Rebekah Brockman) proves more knowledgeable than her tutor (the Hugh Grant-charming Jack Cutmore-Scott) in the realm of abstract, forward-thinking science, but she depends on him to clue her in to the ways of the world (their discussion of “carnal embrace” is an early indication of the play’s humor and the depths of character that drive it). They are the center of the story around which buffoonish poets (Nichols Pleczar is a silly but sympathetic would-be Byron named Ezra Chater) and self-serving academics (Robert Parsons as Bernard Nightingale, admirably filling the shoes of Andy Murray, who has left the production, and Gretchen Egolf as Hannah Jarvis) jostle for recognition and wrestle with history, adultery and the compelling notion that everything we think we’ve lost will eventually come around again in one form or another.

Perloff’s direction is so assured, so clear-eyed and compassionate – even the most ridiculous people on stage are treated with affection – that the show flies by. But scene after scene unfolds its riches without feeling rushed or slighted in any way. The performances, from Ken Ruta as Jellaby, the somewhat baffled butler, to Julia Coffey’s sexy, funny turn as the domineering lady of the house, all crackle as if the actors were relishing every discovery they’re making in Stoppard’s multilayered script.

Arcadia is a play that feels inspired from beginning to end, and ACT’s revival make a persuasive case that this is Stoppard’s masterpiece, truly a play for the ages.

[bonus interview]
I talked with ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff about her long and fruitful relationship with Tom Stoppard and about returning to Arcadia. Read the San Francisco Chronicle interview here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Conservatory Theater’s production of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard continues an extended run through June 16 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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