Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Arcadia and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

An Exquisite Production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

Rebekah Brockman and Jack Cutmore-Scott
Photo by Kevin Berne
American Conservatory Theatre has brought back Tom Stoppard's 1990 masterpiece about sex, literature, epistemology, sex, landscaping, sex, the second law of thermodynamics and the enticingly one-sided romance between mind and body, Arcadia. This exhilarating production directed by Carey Perloff has a superb cast to keep an intelligent theatregoer attentive for almost three hours, with an intermission.

Carey Perloff directed the West Coast premiere of Arcadia in 1995 at A.C.T.'S temporary Stage Door Theatre since the Geary Theatre was still under repair from the 1989 earthquake. The current production is being presented on the larger Geary Theatre stage.

Arcadia is an entrancingly ingenious whodunit for eggheads whose primary purpose is to dramatize the center problem of innovativeness. The play is set in an English country house, moving back and forth in time between 1809 and today. In 1809 Septimus Hodge (Jack Cutmore-Scott) is tutoring the 13-year-old heiress Thomasina (Rebekah Brockman) and he is slowly realizing she is a naïve genius. She has figured out the Second Law of Thermodynamics all by herself, much to the bewilderment of Septimus. The young student's mother Lady Croom (Julia Coffey) is pursuing Septimus' friend Lord Byron (not seen). Bryon's visit becomes the main focus two centuries later.

The modern scenes have two main characters, the preposterously buttoned-down Hannah (Gretchen Egolf) and Bernard (Andy Murray), a caddish academic, to prove Lord Byron killed a minor poet (Nicholas Pelczar) in a duel on the house grounds. The answer is both astounding and incredible. Arcadia's story comes down to Bryon versus science, classicism versus Romanticism, pure reason versus sheer haphazardness.

The large cast has Stoppard's beautiful words down pat and the British accents from the 19th century to the present are perfect. The dozen actors form a seamless ensemble; even those filling the smallest roles are swell. Gretchen Egolf gives an appealing performance as the quizzical Hannah. Andy Murray returns to the A.C.T. stage and gives a terrific performance as the rakish don Bernard Nightingale. Jack Cutmore-Scott is splendid as Septimus Hodge, while Thomasina Coverly as an aristocratic girl of the 19th century is impressive.

Julia Coffey, with her beautiful theatrical voice, gives a stunning performance as Lady Croom. Nicholas Pelczar is perfect as the stiff upper-lip Ezra Chater, and Anthony Fusco turns in a first rate performance as the landscape artist Richard Noakes. Ken Ruta, in the small role of Jellaby the butler, marvelously steals every scene he is in. Adam O'Byrne provides a fine turn as one of the modern-day Coverlys, a mathematician who, in love with Hannah, helps her to grasp the astonishing idea that Thomasina was developing about the order of the universe.

Arcadia is overflowing: Newtonian physics, Byronic poetry, the designs of English gardens, the sensual awaking of a teenage girl, Fermat's theorems. You don't have to be knowledgeable of these things to enjoy the production since the Stoppard lays out the narrative landmarks in a larger purpose by enlightening the emotional, irrational precision of human progress.

Costume designer Alex Jaeger handsomely dresses the actors in each era, and Robert Wierzel's lighting design is sharp and effective. Douglas W. Schmidt's set design of a 19th century drawing room is exquisite.

Arcadia runs through June 16th at A.C.T.'s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit This marks the close of A.C.T. 2012-13 season. The company will open the 2013-14 season with the musical 1776 on September 11, running through October 6th.

An Imaginative High Tech Production of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

Mark Anderson Phillips
Photo by Kevin Berne
Christopher Marlow's The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus can be very cumbersome and is rarely produced. However, director Kirsten Brandt has succeeded in making this classic play into a sprawling inventive presentation, using awesome projections, fantastic lighting effects, and overhead views of mystical sand creations all on a bare stage.

I have seen the tragic history of the doctor who sold his soul to the devil just once, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. I confess it was difficult since it is a hard play to follow with its dizzying blend of mounting tragic verse and puerile low comedy. However, Kirsten Brandt has made this barebones and steam punk-tech production stimulating, sparkling, and even fascinating.

The director is doing this play with just four actors, one man and three women, playing an assortment of characters. The whole production has a Wagnerian effect on how the actors, set designer, costume designer and light and video designers coexist. The character of Marguerite has been incorporated into this production (in Marlow's play there is no such character, or any love interest for Faustus). However, she is simply woven in with a shadow play and in short vignettes.

Mark Anderson Phillips is outstanding as Faustus. He handles the rich verse wonderfully, with a cerebral edginess, gut-wrenching fear for his soul, and corporeal horror at the end. Halsey Varady and Rachel Harker are excellent in a wide range of roles. Harker gives an enjoyable performance in a trio of Faustus' fellow scholars, with the aid of two puppet dress forms. She is also daunting as a platform-booted, corseted Lucifer. Halsey Varady is successful fluctuating from Faustus' faithful aide to the emperor, from Good to Evil as vigorously and vibrantly as her projected wings turn from dove white to raven black.

Lyndsy Kail gives a commanding performance as Mephistopheles. She conjures the fierceness and pangs of empathy of Marlow's most complex creations. She is also enchanting as all Seven Deadly Sins.

On Friday and Saturday nights, San Jose Rep's Emerging Artists Lab takes over the wine bar and lobby after the performance to perform a one-act play for the enjoyment of those who attend the main performance. On Saturday May 18, this group, under the title of SJREAL, performed Peter Hsieh's new play Jack Rabbit. It is a camp drama about a vampire couple, a young lady looking for romance, and her prized possession (a stuffed rabbit) suddenly becoming a "rabbit prince charming." It featured some very good, natural dialogue by the playwright and good performances by Hannah Becker and Tasi Alabastro as the vampires, Amber Sommerfeld as the young lady Hope, and Rory Strahan-Mauk as the rabbit.

Each week there is a new one hour play performed after the week end performances. May 31 and June 1, they will present Napkin, Shot Glass, Pen written and directed by Lauren Doyle.

The Tragical World of Dr. Faustus plays through June 2nd at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or visit Coming up next is the West Coast premiere of Austin Pendleton's A Minister's Wife with music by Joshua Schmidt and lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen opening on June 17 and running through July 14th.

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

- Richard Connema

Privacy Policy