Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Pear Avenue Theatre

Also see Eddie's review of Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters, Patrick's review of Jarrod Spector: A Little Help from My Friends, and Richard's review of Detroit

Monica Ammerman and Robert Sean Campbell
How audacious it is for the less-than-fifty-seat Pear Avenue Theatre to stage what novelist and poet Brad Leithauser declared in The New Yorker (August 8, 2013) to be "a masterpiece," "the finest play written in my lifetime." But under the finely tuned direction of Jeanie K. Smith, an outstanding cast of ten unfolds the increasingly complex Arcadia by Tom Stoppard with skill and finesse to match that of any ensemble on any stage. The alternating action between the early 1800s and the present day occurs only a few feet from the farthest audience member in Janny Cote's simple but effective aristocratic, country manor in Derbyshire, England. It is this sense of intimacy and being in the moment with the authentically English-accented troupe that allows us as audience to become fully engrossed in Stoppard's often dense, sometimes obscure, but also funny and heartwarming script.

Mr. Stoppard spreads before us a slice of aristocratic family life of 1809 at Sidley Park. With farcical touches and memorable one-liners, he presents the intellectual explorations and discoveries by a curious thirteen-year-old girl with her young male tutor. He adds sexual affairs of said tutor with both a buxom houseguest and the manor's grand dame. He then throws in a cuckolded husband and mediocre author who cannot decide whether to challenge in a dawn duel the tutor or to seek the tutor's reviewing praise for his just-published "The Couch of Eros." All of this occurs as the manor's classically beautiful English garden with lakes and fountain is in upheaval as it transforms into a more natural, wild rubble of landscape—all in the name of out with the old (classicism) and in with the new (romanticism).

As Thomasina Coverly, Monica Ammerman brings a masterful mix of teenage intensity, curiosity, and spontaneity as she also displays believable depth of intellect beyond her years. Ms. Ammerman's Thomasina approaches a sexually aware 17 with heightened sensuality while at the same time she commands with ease Stoppard's script full of physics and calculus hypotheses about heat transfer and the chaos of the universe. Her devoted tutor and secret heartthrob Septimus Hodge is brought to life by the versatility of Robert Sean Campbell. Mr. Campbell teaches with attention and care; spars cleverly with the cuckolded, not-too-smart Ezra Chater; and openly seduces the manor's mistress Lady Croom while proudly admitting his affair in the gazebo with Chater's wife. As the aspiring author of The "Couch of Eros" and the aforementioned cheated husband, Brian Flegel provides one of the evening's most fun performances. Facial expressions and manipulations by the score, along with a voice that leads to laughter by its very expression become Mr. Flegel's instruments for a stellar, secondary role. As Lady Croom, Monica Cappuccini (alternating the role with Pear's Artistic Director Diane Tasca) is appropriately sophisticated and stern while also deliciously scandalous when eyeing and rubbing up against her sometime lover, Septimus. In scene after scene of this early 1800s family, a boy dashes in and out, running under table and among bewildered adults, always smiling and always silent. As Gus, Jason Pollak brings mystery and amusement to a boy who sees and understands much more than we at first guess.

Fast forward to present day, and in the same setting we now witness literary historians who are trying to prove what really happened two hundreds years prior in this very manor. Hints have emerged of the revered poet, Lord Byron, having been a guest of Lord and Lady Croom at the same time as an unexplained and sudden disappearance of another guest and author of a book ("The Couch of Eros") that was later found in Lord Byron's belongings. Enclosed notes point to the author's anger over his wife's infidelities with an unnamed lover. Other probings concerning this manor's past tell of a fire that tragically killed a young girl in her bedroom in 1812 and of a hermit who dwelt for many years in a mysterious shack that was built as part of the garden's 1812 re-do. All of these clues are just enough to spur hilarious but very serious wild-goose chases among our modern academic sleuths.

As one of the explorers of this manor's past inhabitants, tall and attractive Elizabeth Kruse Craig as Hannah Jarvis rejects time and again the affections of the men around her, intent intellectually to pursue the trail of clues left in the manor's books, scraps of paper, and even drawings. Ms. Craig is constantly "on" in her portrayal of Hannah. Even when audience attention is on others, she is forever grimacing, sighing, smirking, frowning, and using her every facial muscle to create a woman who is always thinking, judging, and calculating all that is going on around her. Her professional nemesis is the foppish Bernard Nightingale (Dan Kapler), whose ego inflates at incredible rates as he conveniently fills in historical gaps with wild but very marketable-to-the-masses conclusions about possible duels and deaths. Mr. Kapler is loud and pompous yet also endearingly likeable as the Nightingale whose bubble is about to be popped. Michael Rhone rounds out the modern grouping of intellects as a wimpy but cute and savvy mathematician who reluctantly but resolutely discovers that Thomasina's theories were based not on girlish fantasies, but on incredible and uncanny understanding and calculations.

Not unlike his other plays, Mr. Stoppard paints his scenes with the brushes of many fields—physics, botany, literature, calculus, politics, music—while making sure there is enough satire and sexual tension to spice things up. What begins as a period farce evolves into deep questions: what do we really know about the histories before us, when is a fact indeed a fact, and how much can we count on intellect and intellectuals to tell us what gut and emotions may know otherwise? Truths in Arcadia are revealed not just by the probing minds of academics but also by a mute boy and a long-lived turtle. We see that great discoveries are sometimes only rehashes of invented theories now long forgotten. The great divides (like between the intellect and the heart) we have often created in our pursuits of "real truth" are in Mr. Stoppard's world destined to come together if we only let the war of words instead become a dance of equals.

With the help of Thomas Stoppard's challenging script, the astute direction of Jeanie K. Smith, and the astounding interpretation and skill of this excellent cast, we as audience have an evening at the tiny Pear Avenue Theater not soon to be forgotten.

Arcadia continues at Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Mountain View through July 12, 2015. Online ticket sales are at; box office is at 650-254-1148.

Photo: Ray Renati

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

- Eddie Reynolds