Stoppard’s ambitious ‘Arcadia’ launches new JTC season
Tom Stoppard’s plays are not for the intellectually faint of heart. In his dazzling and accomplished “Arcadia,” the playwright’s roving mind and lively wit concoct a densely-packed thematic narrative touching on mathematics and physics, English history and culture, landscape gardening, the Romantic movement, academic infighting, Lord Byron, and, of course, sex and literature. It’s a long, smart, frequently funny play, and Jewel Theatre Company enhances its reputation for ambitious productions by staging “Arcadia” to kick off its ninth season.
The play is written as a kind of literary mystery, which plays out alongside its resolution in two separate time periods, 200 years apart, on the play’s single set, a drawing room at an English country estate. Returning JTC stalwart Susan Myer Silton directs with efficiency and aplomb, keeping characters moving crisply in and out of Ron Gasparinetti’s handsome, stationary set. She also manages the tricky dance of keeping each character true to his or her historical and cultural era, even when they (occasionally) occupy the same set at the same time.
In 1809, at the country estate of Sidley Park, a proper young lady of the Regency era, Thomasina Coverly (a spirited Hannah Mary J. Keller), is attempting to study Fermat’s Theorem with her self-possessed young tutor, Septimus Hodge (the very effective Robert Anthony Peters). But she’s more interested in learning the meaning of the expression “carnal embrace,” overheard in the servants’ gossip (she has a vague idea it has to do with meat). Meanwhile, her mother, Lady Croom (a terrific Shannon Warrick), is suffering the renovation of her formal, Classicist garden with an overlay of faux-wild, Gothic elements, in keeping with the fashion for Romanticism that’s becoming all the rage.
Alternating scenes in the present day involve the current Covery descendant, the ironically named Valentine (nicely underplayed by William J. Brown III), a mathematics scholar who finds the “personalities” of history “trivial” next to solid facts, and studies probability theories relating to the grouse population of Sidley Park. His house guest, literary historian Hannah Jarvis (a sly turn by JTC Artistic Director Julie James), has just published a book on Lord Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, unpopular with latter-day Byron scholars. (“The Byron Gang unzipped their pants and patronized all over it,” as she puts it.)
Charging into this stately milieu is literary scholar Bernard Nightingale. Thanks to Jeff Garrett’s hilarious performance, he is the raucous centerpiece of this production, a volatile academic hell-bent on pummeling a few scant crumbs of historical possibility into the proof he needs to support his pet theory—that Lord Byron, an old school chum of Septimus Hodge, murdered a minor English poet called Chater (who was never heard from again) in a duel over the latter’s wife at Sidley Park.
Adroit comedy is made from the juxtaposition of the modern academics’ theorizing and the way events actually play out back in the Regency period. The rough-hewn Chater (a funny Christopher Reber, memorable as the gumshoe in last season’s “Gunmetal Blues”) disappears from the literary scene for much more mundane reasons than the researchers suspect. The legendary “Sidley Park Hermit,” about whom Hannah means to write her next book, turns out to be based on nothing more substantial than an idle doodle drawn by Thomasina. Other ideas pinging around include the forward momentum of time, “the decline from thinking to feeling” in the Romantic movement, and the eternal debate between art and science.
In a play so crammed with dialogue, the actors really have to keep up. There were some flubbed lines on opening night, but this will sort itself out as everyone settles into their roles. When the actors are on point, the play hums along, from the delicious guile with which Bernard reels skeptical Hannah into his Byronic conspiracy theory, to the brio with which he reads to the others his paper on the subject—in prose as purple as any Georgian hothouse melodrama. Yet, as funny as Garrett is as Bernard, he’s also given the play’s most poignant moment, demonstrating how poetry, and not pure reason, “expands the universe.” This is heady stuff, and kudos are due to JTC for another challenging production.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of “Arcadia” plays Thursdays-Sundays through Sept. 22 at Center Stage Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For tickets, call 425-7506, or visit JewelTheatre.net.