Arcadia, at Jewel Theatre, Sep 18, 2013

Science gone hilariously awry

9693170837_ffa9295edf_bJeff Garrett, William J. Brown III, Adam Stanton, Julie James. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

I only learned week before last that Arcadia was being done by the Jewel Theatre Company of Santa Cruz and by the time I’d negotiated a ticket it was to be squeezed into a midweek performance added to accommodate those who were being turned away from all the other sold out performances. Like The Winter’s Tale and Guys and Dolls, Arcadia’s a play I would travel many miles farther than Santa Cruz to see.

A full house, yes, but when we returned for Act II, a few seats had been vacated by occupants I suspect were scared off by all the early 19th and late 20th century philosophical, literary and scientific references liberally scattered through the script. Arcadia has enough themes to fill out five or six plays and much of its brilliance stems from the way Tom Stoppard manages to package them artfully together.

His structure is a diptych of members of the same family occupying the same room nearly two centuries apart. We watch the aristocratic Coverlys and their educational and literary adherents in 1809 dealing with big social changes that were sweeping across Britain as Romanticism washed over The Age of Reason. Then we watch three 20th century Coverly descendants and two academic hangers-on interpreting fragments of data we have watched in the making and getting it all hilariously wrong. All that plus plenty of 1809 sex and violence, the sex offstage but frequent, the violence repeatedly averted through ridiculous, aborted dueling challenges worthy of Congreve.

Nothing so difficult about that, really; no pop quiz at the final curtain. All the talk about Newtonian physics, gothic Romantic architecture, chaos theory and thermodynamics is just provocative evidence of what is exercising the minds of all those delightful characters. Director Susan Myer Silton’s chief aims seem to have been clarity and energy and those qualities are both the strength and the occasional weakness of this consistently entertaining production. Energy—that goal every director so fervently sets for every actor—was very high. To a person this cast displayed a confidence and a coherent understanding of the people and ideas they were portraying. This made the play as accessible as any of the four versions I’ve seen. In the 1809 sequences, for instance, the female head of the Coverly clan, Lady Croom, had always struck me as a slightly disappointing watered-down Lady Bracknell, full of trenchant epigrams but not much humanity. Shannon Warrick of Jewel transforms her into someone who can find her way around an early 19th century wisecrack with the best of them but holds onto the outward social correctness and sub rosa sexual freedom of the departing Age of Reason. In the twentieth century sections, William J. Brown III as the mathematician Valentine, helped me better than earlier Valentines to grasp something about thermodynamics and chaos theory. Or am I maybe just getting closer to it through repeated exposure?

All the stage energy sometimes, however, seemed to get out of hand this time around. In the 19th century sequences, the sprightly Hannah Mary J. Keller played the teenage genius Thomasina Coverly with such relentless pyrotechnic bounce that it was hard to believe she ever took enough time out to anticipate twentieth-century chaos theory. And in the 20th century sections, Jeff Garrett used his obvious talent and resourcefulness so broadly that his performance as the excitedly deceived academic Bernard Nightingale sometimes spilled over into ranting caricature.

But the show never dragged and Silton’s Director’s Notes are “bang on,” as the Brits would put it, when she writes that in this play Stoppard is telling us that  “…no matter how we think and probe and discover and invent, no matter how much knowledge we attain, there will always be the human heart. It is the variable, the symbol for something we have yet to discover. . .”

By the time you read this, Jewel’s run of Arcadia is history. But try and seek out any future chance to experience one of the stage treasures of the 20th century.

Posted Sep 23, 2013