Photograph by Shannon Stowe
Pulling out all the Stoppards: Thomasina (Elvy Yost) gets some tutoring from Septimus Hodge (Michael Barrett Austin) in 'Arcadia.'
Pear Avenue Theatre sorts out the verbal intricacies of Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia'
By Marianne Messina
IN THE HANDS of director Rebecca J. Ennals, Tom Stoppard's language-laden play Arcadia thrives in a tiny space at Pear Avenue Theatre. Stoppard uses alternating scenes to unfold parallel stories of the Croom earldom, the early-19th-century Coverlys and their current-day scions. When Stoppard's intricate wordplay and allusion are scattered over a larger, brighter stage, the human element can be easily lost. But Ennals (who also designed the set) and lighting designer Cyrus Eaton have wrapped the action in a soft, intimate twilight that enhances the sense of ghosts among the living. Low, pale lighting invites us into the candlelit era. Eaton's design culminates in a final fade that takes us down through ambiguous shadows to a single candle flame.
From the backdrop that displays the Romantic landscape described in the play—the "serpentine river," the central thatch-roof hermitage—to the old-wood tables to the clothes (a brilliant contribution by Gail Farmer), everything is cast in sepia brown, like faded history. This makes the occasional color accent all the more striking, the white dress on young Lady Thomasina (Elvy Yost), the goldenrod gown with gold filigreed lace on Diane Tasca's character (Thomasina's mother), Lady Croom.
The story starts in 1809 with Septimus Hodge (Michael Barrett Austin), tutor, rake and college mate of the poet Lord Byron, tutoring the precocious young Thomasina. While Hodge tries to manage his sexual intrigues in the Coverly household, 14-year-old Thomasina intuitively pursues a mathematical algorithm it will take 200 years and the invention of the computer to carry out to a proof. In the present, two competing scholars find the remnants of these lives in journals and letters and squabble over the implications.
Choosing to use completely different cast members for each era, Ennals' production brings out the parallels between characters in more subtle ways. For instance, the broody hue (oxblood to purple) of Hodge's silk vest returns in the velvet dinner jacket of the modern Byron scholar Bernard Nightingale (Stewart Lyle). Austin plays Hodge close to the vest, doling out slim portions of the rake, the smug academic, the forthcoming tutor. He skates near the brink of propriety, without winking at Stoppard's innuendo (sigh of relief).
For her part, Yost doesn't go out of her way to make Thomasina cute, coy or flirtatious. She gives Thomasina a gentle youthfulness, the thoughtfulness of deep curiosity, the animation of someone on the verge of discovery. Their present-day parallel, another nonsexual couple united by books and studies, Nightingale and historian Hannah Jarvis (Sylvia Kratins), piece together the Croom history from their differing angles with often-humorous inaccuracies.
Kratins plays a thoughtful Hanna, her every pause, it seems, driven by contemplation, as if she has no playbook for any situation. A perfect complement to this Hannah, Lyle arms his extremely charismatic Bernard with forceful, ironic oratory; he's a zealous warrior wielding facts and minutia on behalf of history. They bring us to see that Hannah's guardedness is ultimately more tolerant and Bernard's animation comes at the expense of bias.
The characterizations in this production clearly highlight the idea that genius is the more halting, timid force (epitomized by Kris Jacobs' Valentine Coverly). Rationality, where wits prey on the witless, dominates the stage while genius flickers quietly at its fringes. Including Tasca, who manages to capture both Lady Croom's erudite sneering and her vulnerability, as one era succumbs to the next, this cast is wonderful and the production aims true, unified down to the detail. You couldn't hope for a better tour guide through Stoppard's linguistic density (the program provides a glossary, thank you), as he initiates threads about genius and Zeitgeist and history indwelling the present.
Arcadia, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through March 18 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$25. (650.254.1148)
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