Almost too brilliant
It begins with a question about the meaning of “carnal embrace,” put by a curious teenage girl to her handsome tutor.
And then you’re off—sailing through a dazzling array of topics, ranging from algebra to Lord Byron’s poetry to Isaac Newton’s physics contrasted with contemporary chaos theory! Onward into the history of landscape gardening at British estates, opportunistic adultery and back- stabbing academic politics!
The play is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, first produced in London 10 years ago, and long, long overdue for an Equity-level production here. The Sacramento Theatre Company’s finally done it. Arcadia is the season opener on the company’s newly renovated and much improved, though not expanded, Main Stage.
Stoppard is a very smart fellow with an incredible wit. In Arcadia, he displays this trait to the max. “A brilliant, brilliant play,” said the London Observer, of the London premiere. “I have never left a play more convinced that I’d just witnessed a masterpiece,” said The Daily Telegraph.
Some felt Stoppard went a bit too far. “There is no one like Stoppard for making you feel both spoilt and inadequate as an audience,” sniffed the London Observer. And The Spectator complained of “the terrifying prospect of our most intelligent and referential dramatist finally vanishing up his own brilliance.”
Suffice to say that Arcadia is a complex, challenging play that repays the viewer’s close attention. Saying it’s dense is like saying the Grateful Dead played loud—it’s a given. If, at intermission, you fret that you aren’t getting it all, stop worrying. It’s part of the plan.
The play is talky, and Stoppard needs time to set up an unconventional, two-track story. The setting is a single room at a historic British estate. We watch life unfold in 1809 for one cast, while another present-day cast sleuths out the lives and loves of the first group.
Standouts in the STC cast include Janis Stevens (as a contemporary writer, wicked with her put-downs) and her mortal opposite Stephen Godwin (as a manipulative, self- serving academic). Denis Butkus heads up the 1809 group with a strong performance as tutor Septimus Hodge. The scenic design by Marion Williams, based on Robert Dahlstrom’s original, is gorgeous.
Director Peggy Shannon might tone down the accents with the 1809 cast, as they hinder comprehensibility at times in the first half. But overall, it’s a handsome effort. Relax, keep your eye on the ball, and enjoy. The touching final scene—I won’t spoil it by giving details—is particularly memorable.