Power Stirring

ACT's Arcadia enthralls with Tom Stoppard's love of mystery, language, and intellectual puzzles

Early in the first scene of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (now in its West Coast premiere in a splendid ACT production directed by Carey Perloff), a brilliant 13-year-old observes to her youthful tutor, "You cannot stir things apart." Thomasina (Tina Jones) is talking about pudding, and how it is possible to mix jam into pudding, but that no amount of reverse stirring will make it unmix. Septimus (Daniel Cantor) concurs: "We must stir our way onward, mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder, until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it forever." Thomasina is not so easily dismissed, however, and, between sweetly naive questions about "carnal embrace" and "sexual congress," posits a theory to describe the future: If one could stop time, could fix each atom in its place, and if one were "really, really good at algebra," one could create a formula that would accurately predict how and where each atom will end up. Is she the first to have thought of it? She is, he concedes.

It's just an instant, barely noticeable. But like a pebble dropped in a pond, the moment creates a ripple effect which interrupts the idyllic rhythms of life at Sidley Park and sends out waves of increasing size. You can almost hear Stoppard, ever the master of structural craft, humming cheerfully as he gleefully stirs up parallel universes in which chaos, romance, comedy, history, mathematics, and unprovable literary mysteries are as taken for granted as the elegant room in which it all unfolds.

The action resumes as minor poet Ezra Chater (Tom Lenoci), with whose wife Septimus (and a host of others) has recently enjoyed, uh, sexual congress, bursts into the schoolroom. Chater has just published a new book-length verse drama (dreadful, we are given to understand) that Septimus has been asked to review. The book will be a dutiful traveler back and forth between the early 19th century and the present.

Interrupting Chater's hysterical demands that Septimus fight him in a duel, Lady Croom (Kimberly King) enters with her gardener, who has been hired to alter the landscape of Sidley Park and transform it from a paradise of classical order -- the mythical Arcadia -- to the epitome of the romantic Gothic style known as "picturesque."

The scene changes and doesn't change. We're in the same room at Sidley Park, but the occupants are the contemporary Coverlys -- Valentine (Matthew Boston), Chloe (Mollie Stickney), and the mute Gus (Christopher Hickman). Also present is Hannah Jarvis (Katherine Borowitz), an author researching the garden, and Bernard Nightingale (Graham Beckel), a university don looking into a possible Coverly connection to Lord Byron. Hannah, Bernard, and Valentine are all trying in their own ways to comprehend the secrets of the Sidley Park universe and thereby see their own present, if not their future.

Hannah, in describing the transformation of the garden, calls it a "romantic sham" and "the decline from thinking to feeling." Bernard wants desperately to prove that a duel did indeed take place, and that Chater was killed, but that it was Lord Byron (a schoolmate of Septimus and a visitor to the estate) who killed him. Valentine, a mathematician, is using a computer to decode the page after page of algebraic formulas he has found in Thomasina's surviving notebooks.

Sound intimidating? Stoppard can't help himself. He remains as transfixed by mystery, language, and intellectual puzzles as he ever was, but Arcadia gives us a kinder, gentler Stoppard, if you will; a Stoppard who has allowed love to intrude on the mental process, who treats the human compulsion to understand with compassion, and who celebrates "the decline of thinking into feeling" with whimsy: "If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?" Like Thomasina in the first scene, we are promised that our stern dinner of boiled beef and cabbage will be rewarded with "a nice rice pudding."

It isn't very often that I get to see two first-rate productions of the same play. Arcadia has held me in its grip since August, when I saw it in New York, and as rendered by ACT is no less enthralling. Perloff's direction has clarified many of the plot points, such as at the beginning, when we see through actions that the beautifully gowned (and to our eyes mature) Thomasina is a child of 13. The play moves at a steady and confident pace, its themes whirling about like the graceful waltzers who dance at the end. It's a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces fall together in an order as lovely as anything Hannah could desire.

For the most part the actors are confident and polished dealing with language that is as demanding as anything Shakespeare can offer. There are occasional slips in the proper English accents, but even those do not distract for more than a fleeting instant. More disruptive is an occasional self-consciousness which serves to make an already highly theatrical script into an overly stagy and artificial affair. Gerald Hiken, for instance, a veteran of comic character roles, labors shamelessly here to steal focus as Jellaby, the butler.

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