Celebrating her 20th season as artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, Carey Perloff is returning to one of her favorite playwrights, Tom Stoppard, and reviving a play, "Arcadia," she first directed for ACT in 1995.
Back then ACT was on the road, so to speak, while its home base, the Geary Theater, was being repaired and renovated after suffering major damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Therefore, "Arcadia" was staged in the nearby Stage Door Theater, a smaller venue that's now Ruby Skye nightclub. In some ways, it worked better there than in the Geary because of its intimacy. Still, the present production is well done, not an easy feat in view of how intellectually challenging and complex the play is.
The action takes place in one room of a large country house in England's Derbyshire in 1809, 1812 and the present. It opens in 1809 when 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman) is being tutored by Septimus Hodge (Jack Cutmore-Scott). Though somewhat naive, Thomasina is an original thinker who, we later learn, comes up with scientific theories far ahead of her time. She couldn't prove them because she lacked the computer resources that today's scientists command.
We also learn that Septimus is much admired by the ladies, including one of the Coverly family's house guests, as well as Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom (Julia Coffey).
Present-day happenings alternate with those in the past. The home is still occupied by Coverlys, who are playing host to Hannah Jarvis (Gretchen Egolf), an author studying the history of their garden. Another visitor is Bernard Nightingale (Andy Murray), a don who wants to learn more about a minor poet, Ezra Chater (Nicholas Pelczar), who was a guest at the Coverly home in 1809. He's also pursuing the possibility that Lord Byron was there at the same time.
Besides those already mentioned, noteworthy performances come from Adam O'Byrnes as Valentine Coverly, one of the home's present occupants; Anthony Fusco as Richard Noakes, Lady Croom's landscape architect; and Ken Ruta as Jellaby, a butler for the earlier occupants.
As the action switches between the centuries, we see how what happened in 1809 influences discoveries by the people in the present and how some of the latter's suppositions are inaccurate.
The set is by Douglas W. Schmidt with lighting by Robert Wierzel, costumes by Alex Jaeger, sound by Jack Rodriguez, music by Michael Roth and choreography by Val Caniparoli.
Stoppard laces all of this activity with humor, sexual undertones and lots of dense intellectual discussion that can be hard for the nonscientific listener to follow. Still, as the play unfolds, more of the action becomes clear, thanks to Stoppard's genius, Perloff's direction and an excellent cast.
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