Power Stirring

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.

As Thomasina, Tina Jones is a textbook adolescent, squirming and mugging long after we have gotten the point about her age. She improves enormously in the later scenes, when the character is nearly 17, and has a heart-rending moment when her mother decrees her carefree schoolroom days must come to an end, and she must give up algebra for a loveless marriage of convenience.

Daniel Cantor is a thoughtful and scholarly Septimus and handles this challenging role with grace and authority. Unfortunately, I had a hard time buying his Septimus as a sexy young lothario much in demand for romantic liaisons. The general lack of chemistry between him and Thomasina slowed the overall dramatic momentum.

Tom Lenoci makes a marvelous Ezra Chater, a dimwitted poet who must admit to his own lack of talent, as well as to his wife's infidelity, and who does so with blustery aplomb. I also adored Kimberly King as Lady Croom, whose leisurely aristocratic put-downs are masterpieces of timing and vocal nuance. She earned applause more than once on opening night.

As the ruthless and obsessive scholar Bernard Nightingale, Graham Beckel circles the stage like a determined bear who is surprisingly nimble when it's time to move in and grab the prize. Beckel loses his accent on a regular basis, but he is so feverish in his passion, it is possible to incorporate American inflections as part of his speech patterning.

Matthew Boston is an elegant and casually aristocratic Valentine Coverly who adds flair and fuel to the romantic fires.

But it is Katherine Borowitz's Hannah Jarvis (a starring role played almost as caricature on Broadway by Blair Brown) that focuses the play, grounds and centers it, and gives it its humanity. Borowitz has true star quality, a quietly persistent presence that illuminates the stage and gives us a Hannah whose lively intellect is balanced by a haunting vulnerability.

The other stars in this Arcadia are the designers. Kate Edmunds' beautiful set is a monument of simple, symmetrical elegance, and it serves both centuries admirably. The gorgeously understated costumes — muted linens, brocades, and cottons — are by Walter Hicklin, and everything is pulled together visually by Peter Maradudin's lighting.

At one point in the second act, I looked up at the light grid over the stage and noticed all the colors were pale blues and yellows. The characters, too, were wearing blues and yellows, which colors mixed together, of course, make up the lush green of the English countryside. It was as though the world were suspended in the moment before the green is created, as though all the atoms of yellow and all the atoms of blue were fixed in the unlimited possibility of green. A tiny moment in an evening of huge rewards.

Arcadia runs through Dec. 3 at the Stage Door Theatre in S.F.; call 749-2227.

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