Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Cinnabar Theater

Also see Richard's reviews of Nick & Nora, The Braggart Soldier, or Major Blowhard and From White Plains

Jocelynn Murphy and Sam Coughlin
"It's the best possible time to be alive—when everything you thought you knew is wrong." This line, delivered by one of the many brilliant characters in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (though to be fair, many of the characters are geniuses of one stripe or another), almost perfectly encapsulates what is most appealing about the play, one of Stoppard's best. Arcadia, currently playing at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, is suffused with a sense of passionate curiosity. This wanting to know, the desire to uncover the deepest mysteries at the heart of life is a tremendously powerful engine, driving the narrative forward so efficiently that—even though the show runs nearly three hours—there is always a reason to stay engaged.

In this mostly excellent production we are introduced to two sets of characters living in (or being guests at) Sidley Park, an English manor house. One group inhabits the home in April of 1809, and a second group lives in the present day. As the play begins, in the 19th century, young Thomasina Coverly is having a lesson from her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and wondering if she might be the first person to consider the idea that if one were able to stop every atom in the universe—and was also "really, really good at algebra"—that one could write the formula for all the future. In other words, be able to see with perfect clarity.

However, it being impossible to stop all atomic motion—and without supercomputers, impossible to perform the required calculations even if you could freeze the universe in place—there is very little clarity and we humans continue to stumble along in a search for understanding and truth.

Thomasina is looking to reconcile Newtonian physics with ideas she has that physicists won't discover for another few decades, while Lady Croom, her mother, is engaged in a more terrestrial concern: deciding whether to redesign the gardens of Sidley Park in a more modern fashion that reflects on the concept of entropy. Of course, for Lady Croom, things mean whatever she says they mean. She is, interestingly, the least curious of the characters, but the surest of the rightness of her opinions.

The present day Coverlys (and guests, including two academics) are fascinated by what went on in the house in April of 1809 (when the poet Byron had been a guest), but their view (of events we see acted out for us in real time) is obscured not only by the passage of 200+ years, but by the prejudices of our age, the incompleteness of information, and the hubris of modernity.

If this sounds like a bit of an intellectual challenge, it can be. But there's a lot to enjoy, even if you don't pick up on all the references to Newtonian determinism and chaos theory. But if you pay attention, your curiosity will be well rewarded. This is aided by director Sheri Lee Miller's getting the pace almost exactly right. Her cast nearly always know when to keep the dialogue snappy, and when to slow down and let a moment breathe.

Though every member of the cast who plays one of the curious, engaged characters delivers the kind of focused performance that illustrate that curiosity, Patrick Edwards, playing Sussex don Bernard Nightingale, deserves special mention for his almost manically energetic portrayal of an academic on the cusp of a discovery that could remake his career. Every time Edwards is on stage, the wattage of everyone's performance is turned up.

Sam Coughlin's portrayal of Septimus Hodge is equally skillful, but in a different emotional range. His posture and gestures are perfectly in line with his character, bringing a wonderful sense of verisimilitude to his role. He can be formal, yet still at ease, and the wit with which Stoppard has blessed his character flows effortlessly.

Where the cast misses the mark is when the story leaves politeness and tact behind. They all do a pleasant job of playing the more pleasant scenes, being very reserved and British, but when the need for rage arises, no one really seems able to access a sense of true anger or indignation. Their naturalness is knocked aside in these moments and instead of characters driven to righteous anger, we see actors raising their voices in weak attempts to express power.

Costumes (by Pat Fitzgerald) are excellent. Just period enough for the 19th century scenes, and modern and natural for the present day action. The set (by David Lear) is workmanlike enough, suited to the task, but lack the elegance needed to really pull off the idea of an English manor house.

Stoppard presents myriad mysteries to be solved in Arcadia. Some we know the answer to and gather our primary enjoyment from watching characters who are in the dark about the question at hand struggle to make their way to the light. Some we must stumble along with the characters to discover a solution to them. Some mysteries, however, will always remain mysterious. For as much as this play is about how we convince ourselves that some things must be true, its message is that there can never be a perfect truth—at least not in our chaotic, boundless universe. But as long as we remain curious about our world, we can enjoy a brief time in an Arcadia of our own invention.

Arcadia runs through April 26, 2015, at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., with an additional 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday, April 11. Tickets are $25 general, $15 for those 21 and under. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 707-763-8920.

Photo: Victoria Von Thal

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

- Patrick Thomas

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