Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” – An Intellectual Treat at ANW

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in "Arcadia" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in “Arcadia” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


When I first saw Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the Mark Taper Forum many years ago, I was stunned at its power, and said so in print. I was startled at the mixed reaction I got to that review from people who had seen the show as well, and who usually had the interest in arts that I did. The same thing happened the next time I reviewed a Stoppard play. Thus, let me say from the start that Stoppard’s work is for those who enjoy mental and emotional rigor, and “Arcadia,” now enjoying a finely polished production at A Noise Within, is no exception. If you don’t want to do that kind of work while sitting in an audience, you may find it disappointing.

If you do, you will find this production, and this work, an absolute treasure. As the play explores the meaning of truth, and of genius, it raises questions about everything from morality, to the universe, to the nature and purpose of science and of scholarship. It does so with feet firmly in two very different time periods at once, peopled with characters ranging from fascinating to ridiculous to endearing, and in language which is the kind of spoken poetry great playwrights use.

The story revolves around a single English country estate, seen both in the early 19th Century and present day. There, in a sunny formal room, a historian’s modern research into the evolution of the formal gardens is interrupted by a pop-academician interested in gaining enough information to achieve quick fame. The current residents of the house, descended from those in the past period, include those who echo the skills, temperaments and occasional genius of their antique forebears.

Alternating with these scenes, one is introduced to those forebears, and to the actual events, personalities and talents which the moderns are trying to parse from the few remaining bits of documentary evidence. By the end, in a moment reminiscent of Einstein’s contention that “the distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion”, both time periods are running in the same room at the same time, moving forward as inexorably as a mathematical formula.

Foundational to this tale is the interaction between the 19th Century tutor at this estate, and the brilliant daughter he is there to teach. Rafael Goldstein as Septimus, the tutor and a former school friend of Lord Byron, balances the man’s scholarly intellect and articulate sensuality in ways which provide much of the glue for the rest of the antique tale. As his student, Thomasina, whom we first see at age 13 and later just before her 18th birthday, Erika Soto vibrates with curiosity and an innate wisdom, and her character’s passionate interest in what mathematics can tell one about the universe.

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Balanced against these antique figures are Susan Angelo as the controlled and scholarly Hannah, a researcher looking for answers to a series of mysteries about the house and gardens as a follow-up to a recently published book. Her arguments for proof and scholarship even as she has her own suppositions gains legs when Bernard, given a slightly over-the-top egoism by Freddy Douglas, appears to scoop up what he can in a hurry and write a lecture he hopes will gain him a moment of limelight.

In between them is Valentine, played with a kind of internal fire by Tavis Doucette. The eldest son of the owners of the house, he has been culling old household accounts for information to fit into computerized equations for a study foundational to his graduate degree, and the vagaries and gut instincts of historical research are “noise” to his view of facts. Jill Renner is there as his rather vapid sister Chloe, while Richy Storrs does double-duty not only as their non-speaking but musically talented brother, and as Thomasina’s egotistical sibling as well.

Abby Craden, as the rather officious and flirtatious Lady Croom, commands the more antique household, joined sometimes by Stephen Weingartner as her pompous military brother. Eric Curtis Johnson handles the duality of a highly regarded professional landscape architect who is still essentially Lady Croom’s servant, while Mitchell Edmonds performs the duties of the patient butler with style. As one of the most humorous characters in the enterprise, Jeremy Rabb’s nervously ambitious yet ostensibly awful poet gives face to a man totally misunderstood by those researching him roughly 200 years on.

Under the comparatively understated direction of Geoff Elliott the piece has a flow and a subtle choreography which allow the necessarily episodic nature of the thing to feel a sense of unity. Leah Piehl’s accurate costuming for the period portion, and inaccurate pieces for use in the modern dress-up segment, show subtle character notes, and underscore some of the play’s points. Frederica Nascimento’s gorgeously understated Georgian hall allows for light to become its own character, while Robert Oriol’s sound design underscores the explosive nature of the playwright’s words.

In short, this production of “Arcadia” fills the eyes and the mind. Likable, or even humorously unlikable characters carry one through a dizzying array of conversations one may need to take a while to chew over afterward. Yet, that work is worth it. The richness continues to unfold. The play will be performed in rotating repertory with Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid”, all marking the 25th season of ANW.

What: “Arcadia” When: In rotating repertory through November 20, 8 p.m. September 30, October 1, November 5, 8 and 11; 7:30 p.m. October 20 and November 10; 7 p.m. October 30 and November 20; with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 30, and November 5 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44 general, student rush with ID $20 an hour before the performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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2 responses to “Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” – An Intellectual Treat at ANW

  1. Neil November 13, 2016 at 5:26 PM

    Could not agree with you more re the 1997 Taper production. After the first performance, I went back a week later to see if I had missed anything. (I had.) And I caught the ACT production a year or so ago.

    I had a couple of problems with this production, which I won’t bore anyone with here. But the biggest was that it was “too cheerful.” Somehow, and in a way that is not clear from the text, the Taper production somehow made Hodge’s . . . obsession [?]. . . with Thomasina and her theories make sense. The audience somehow could see how Septimus would spend the recent of his life in the hermitage, trying to get her integrated formula to work.

    Part of it was the actor playing Thomasina, Angela Bettis. She was absolutely angelic, but at the same time projected an intellect that Hodge could only barely see the outlines of.

    The other part of was that there was a suggestion — which you had to pay very close attention to catch — that Hodge somehow felt he was responsible for the fire that kills Thomasina. Because he didn’t go to her room; because he did; because the candle (as per the script) was upset . . . . whatever.

    But if that idea gets planted, the subsequent history of the “hermit” works better.

    • Frances Baum Nicholson November 21, 2016 at 4:01 PM

      Actually, I agree with you. I missed the chemistry between Thomasina and Septimus that I had felt in the Taper production. It lent itself to a far more satisfying understanding of Septimus’ obvious if unstated fall into hermit-hood – and I agree that some of that was an underscore of guilt which is never actually overt in the text, but makes for far more satisfying underpinning.

      I think my approach to any production is to try to see it in terms of the play as written, rather than holding it up to the lamp of another one – particularly an initial one, for me – which I found hit a visceral chord. I have seen that used by others to denigrate either innovation itself, or the simple act of seeing a script with new eyes. Thus I try not to get stuck there myself.

      It may mean that I lose something in the process, but I cannot help but remember being faced down at a delightful reworking of “How to Succeed in Business…” by a man in the seat in front of me, who had read my review of Cherry Jones in “The Heiress” and hated that I liked it, because in his eyes it failed by not being like the original. He was so closed to the amazing new spin she put on the character, simply because it didn’t jibe with the original Broadway production of the work he had seen in his youth (and which had apparently bowled him over).

      I thought it was ironic to have this discussion (if you can call it that – it was mostly one-sided) at the reimagined production of a musical which had been produced in its original form over and over and over until it was a complete dead fish, and then been revised and brought back to life. It taught me something, though: I have to back off, particularly when it is a work I have loved. In short, I need to treat each production of a more modern work the way I do a production of Shakespeare, where innovation and creative rethinking of the characterizations can be half the fun.

      Still, I admit that though I really liked the ANW version of “Arcadia” it lacked that underscoring, visceral quality which made things click for me at the Taper in such a profound way. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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