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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Brilliant Cast in Tom Stoppard's
Arcadia at TheatreWorks

Also see Richard's review of The Seagull and The Last Five Years

Arcadia
Jennifer Erin Roberts,
J. Paul Boehmer, and Jessica Chisum (background)

TheatreWorks launches its 35th season with this modern masterpiece by British playwright Tom Stoppard. We saw the opening of the National Theatre Production in 1993 at the Lyttelton with Felicity Kendal, Harriet Walter, Samuel West, Rufus Sewell and Emma Fielding, and later the American premiere at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1995. Victor Garber, Billy Crudup, Blair Brown and Robert Sean Leonard were in that all star cast. The New York Post called it "entertainment for the heart, mind and soul." The play won the Olivier Award for best play in London and the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best new play. American Conservatory Theatre also did a superlative production of the Stoppard conundrum years ago.

"There is no one like Tom Stoppard for making you feel both spoilt and inadequate as an audience," remarked Michael Coveney in the London Observer in 1993. The same holds true today. The skill in putting on this masterpiece is to present it so convincingly that if the audience doesn't keep up with the nitty gritty of the iterated algorithms and all that other stuff, it really doesn't matter. If you have only a little understanding of physics you might find a lot of the dialogue floating completely over your heads. However, no matter, just watch the brilliant acting of this top flight cast.

Stoppard throws every thing into Arcadia, including physics, mathematical equations, theories of heat, landscaping, archaeological findings, the Chaos Theory, poetry, Byron's love story and even music (such as the new fangled waltz that has recently come over from Germany in the 1809 scenes). We have historical mysteries as to a supposed duel between Byron and a minor poet Chater. The audience gets all of this in the three hour, one intermission production.

Arcadia takes place in two centuries with parallel scenes from 1809 and the present time in the sumptuous room of a Derbyshire country house. The 1809 scenes involve two chief characters: the handsome young teacher Septimus Hodge (Christopher Kelly), just up from Cambridge and friend of Lord Byron (never seen in the play), and his 16 year old very intelligent pupil Thomasina (Allison Walla). Also involved in this segment: the egotistical and somewhat dense poet Chater (Mark A. Phillips); Lady Croom (Amanda Moody), a randy sort of woman; a bolstering Naval Captain Brice (Clive Brice); and landscape artist Richard Noakes (John Mercer), on the order of Culpability Jones. This all involves an erotic encounter in the gazebo with Septimus and Chater's sleep-around wife (never seen in the play) and the killing of the minor poet in a possible duel.

Arcadia's present scenes follow the mystery of what really did happen on that April day in 1809. The mystery centers on egocentric, flamboyant Bernard (J. Paul Boehmer), a modern day scholar trying to find out just what happen to Chater. He is intent on proving Byron's connection with the family and the apparent dueling death of Chater. Bernard tries to put the pieces together and the audience is granted peeks into the past, which cleverly tantalizes without revealing the whole story. Also involved in this mystery is Hannah Jarvis (Jennifer Erin Roberts), who is writing a book on the garden at the country home. She has just written a book about Lady Caroline Lamb which Bernard reviewed in a negative light. Other characters in the modern scenes are Hannah's very scientific fiance Valentine (Kai Morrison), who expounds on the Chaos Theory at length to cover up his sexual need for Hannah, and a charming teenager, Gus (Will Brill) who has not spoken since he was five. Will Brill also has a small role playing Augustus, a teenage friend of Tomasina in the earlier scenes.

Stoppard seeks to gel a murder mystery with intellectual acrobatics, and he does this by running parallel scenes back and forth, then, in the last scene, putting all characters onto the stage in their own time period. An amazing feat of direction is achieved by Robert Kelly and Vickie Rozell.

Arcadia's cast is outstanding. There is not one weak performance in this excellent ensemble of actors. Bernard is played masterfully by J. Paul Boehmer (An Ideal Husband on Broadway, Off Broadway's Miss Evers Boys, plus ACT's production of House of Mirth). He plays the character so successfully and so obsessed with trying to prove his theories that you want to yell at him because he being so inconsequential. Jennifer Erin Roberts (well known regional actress in Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago) pulls off a very persuasive Hannah who is very reserved sexually. Jessica Chisum (Seattle actress) is very good as Chole, the current owner of the estate who keeps flirting with the lecherous Bernard.

Christopher Kelly (Prince Hal in Henry IV in Washington D.C. and Ishmael in Moby Dick Off Broadway) engagingly plays Septimus with a certain up-market air that was prevalent among "gentlemen" of the 19th century. Alison Walla (Broadway debut in Into the Woods and New York City Opera production of Little Night Music) is wonderful as Thomasina. She brings freshness and charm to the role. Mark A. Phillips is delightful in his portrayal of the ill-fated poet Chater. His wonderful dithering is fun to watch even when he is not speaking. It is a sparking cameo of a performance.

I hate to leave anyone out in this beautiful production. Amanda Moody (Serial Murderess and Seven Courses of Sin at the Venue 9) is effective as the brutish but polite mother of Thomasina, Lady Croom. Also successful in their roles are John Mercer, Clive Worsley and Brian Herndon (as Jellaby). Particular attention should be paid to young teenager Will Brill making his first big professional appearance in the dual role of Gus and Augustus. All of the actors seem to understand the mathematical goings on and I say "good show," people.

Duke Durfee's set is essentially the same as the London and New York productions, showing an exquisite drawing room of the 19th century country home for the gentry. The room is flowing with large windows, and the changes of background and lighting between the 19th and 21st century scenes are striking, thanks to Lighting Designer Cliff Caruthers. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes are lovely for the 19th century scenes. Arcadia runs through July 11 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Their next production is Chay Yew's Red, starring Francis Jue, which will open on July 14 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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