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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Arcadia
A Noise Within
Review by Sharon Perlmutter

Also see Sharon's review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Susan Angelo and Tavis Doucette
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a masterpiece. It takes place at the intersections of past and present, ignorance and knowledge, concepts and reality, literature and physics, conjecture and proof, and love and sex—among many other things. Done right, it's mind-blowing theatre, playing to an audience's intellect as much as its emotions. Done wrong, it's ... well, it's often done wrong. Arcadia is a play that frequently gets audience walk-outs, not because it's bad or because it's offensive, but because it's difficult. The biggest challenge with Arcadia is simply putting it across, and getting an audience to care about the characters while still glimpsing the ideas percolating in the script. It's a hard play that calls for an engaged audience and a sharp enough production to keep them on board.

The production at A Noise Within is in the right ballpark, but not a homerun. The problem appears to be borne of a desire to clarify the play and make it easier for the audience. But in a production that almost puts training wheels on Arcadia to make it understandable, the brilliant ideas in the play are not allowed to soar.

The play begins in Sidley Park, an English estate, in 1809. We quickly learn that Septimus, the resident tutor, has been spotted in "carnal embrace" with one Mrs. Chater, a guest in the home. When Mr. Chater learns of the affair, he is understandably angry. Ezra Chater challenges Septimus, as he believes the tutor has insulted his honor. But Septimus has a burning intelligence, and he can easily manipulate Chater into believing there has been no offense.

That's Stoppard's script. In A Noise Within's production, Chater, played by Jeremy Rabb, is a buffoon. (This is even telegraphed by the costume Leah Piehl has put him in—his pant legs aren't the same length.) Rabb's characterization, under Geoff Elliott's direction, is that of a loser who deserves to be cuckolded. And the problem is that by making Chater such an obvious moron, Septimus is lessened by comparison. If Chater were a man of average intelligence, Septimus's ability to out talk him would sparkle. But a doofus Chater makes Septimus himself seem average—a devastating position for the character who, if the show is going to work, must be overflowing with brains and charisma in equal measure.

A similar problem happens with the modern-day researchers trying to dig up the history of Sidley Park. Bernard Nightingale is a self-centered scholar at the best of times, willing to brush aside facts that don't fit his theories in an excited rush to publish his findings. But Freddy Douglas makes him simply insufferable. Overplaying Bernard's faults ultimately undermines Hannah Jarvis, the other researcher, who is written as his sparring partner. Stoppard has written Hannah and Bernard some good arguments about research and scholarship; they're not going to play well if we always want Bernard to lose on character alone. (Emphasizing Bernard's worst qualifies also undermines Chloe, the young lady who is, now inexplicably, attracted to him.)

At other times, Elliott just lets the production be, and the prose in this Arcadia sings. Shortly before intermission, the modern-day character of Valentine (current owner of Sidley Park) has a speech in which he explains chaos theory, but then adds—of the change in physical model itself—"It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong." Tavis Doucette's Valentine delivers the words clearly and passionately; it is the heart of a scholar, overwhelmed by the possibility of new discovery, and it is effective for its honesty. And Erika Soto, as Septimus's young pupil back in 1809, is equally effective when she, too, is on the brink of something novel. Once or twice, when Soto's Thomasina casually threw off a line of genius without calling attention to it, I heard an audience member gasp, and I thought, "There. That's Arcadia."

A Noise Within's production has several of those moments, where Stoppard's words are played truthfully and his characters seem real. And when that happens, we're in solid "theatrical magic" territory. But too often, the production seems to take the easy way out, trying to oversimplify the characters or go for the comedy inherent in treating them as archetypes rather than complex individuals, and the magic fails to brew.

Arcadia appears in rep with The Maids (now running) and The Imaginary Invalid (beginning October 9) at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through November 20, 2016. For tickets and information, see www.anoisewithin.org.

Directed by Geoff Elliott. Co-Production Sponsors: Kathleen and James Drummy and Dr. Edward J. Kormondy. Scenic Design: Frederica Nascimento; Costume Design: Leah Piehl; Lighting Design: Jean-Yves Tessier; Original Music Composition/Sound Design: Robert Oriol; Stage Manager: Josie Griffith-Roosth; Wig and Makeup Design: Danielle Richter; Props Master" Dillon Nelson; Assistant Stage Manager: Gabrielle J. Bruno. Dialect Coach: Tracy Winters; Scenic Construction: Sets to Go; Scenic Painter: Orlando de la Paz.

Cast:
Thomasina Coverly: Erika Soto
Septimus Hodge: Rafael Goldstein
Jellaby: Mitchell Edmonds
Ezra Chater: Jeremy Rabb
Richard Noakes: Eric Curtis Johnson
Lady Croom: Abby Craden
Captain Brice: Stephen Weingartner
Augustus Coverly/Gus Coverly: Richy Storrs
Hannah Jarvis: Susan Angelo
Chloe Coverly: Jill Renner
Bernard Nightingale: Freddy Douglas
Valentine Coverly: Tavis Doucette




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