Theater for the thinking class

Arcadia opens Big Idea’s 2012 season

From 1812 to 2012, <i>Arcadia </i>is a play for the ages.

From 1812 to 2012, Arcadia is a play for the ages.

PHOTO by Terri Brindisi

Arcadia, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday; $10-$15. No show Sunday, January 29. Big Idea Theatre, 1616 Del Paso Boulevard; (916) 960-3036; January 13 through February 4.
Season subscriber passes (eight shows for $80) and flex passes (in four or six show combinations) are also available at the website.

Expect plenty of struggle—against time, chaos, family and zombies—in Big Idea Theatre’s 2012 season, which opens next week with Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It may be unintentional, but in the company’s fifth season, it is making a case for big cast, high-production-value shows with plenty of conflict.

Of course, with 19 members in the company, the folks at Big Idea have strength in numbers. Membership requires a commitment: involvement with at least two shows, plus a number of hours worked on all the rest. And, according to managing director Shannon Mahoney, the selection process for its season involves all of them.

“Each member pitches two or three shows,” she said. Before making any selection, everyone in the company will have heard the pitch—informed and often impassioned—and has read every show. Then the troupe gets together and makes decisions.

“Once a show is selected, the whole company gets behind it, and we pull together,” said Mahoney, crediting the company’s success to this practice. “It’s not like there’s one show you care about—everybody’s read every show, everybody cares about every show, and everybody is working on some aspect of every show.”

If last season—beginning with The Compleat Female Stage Beauty and ending with a gender-bending version of Twelfth Night, wrapped around Proof, King of Shadows, Wonder of the World and The Pillowman—turned out to be about exploring identity, then this season turns on conflict and chaos.

Arcadia is set in overlapping times two centuries apart and includes literary and mathematical geniuses attempting to decipher both past and present. It’s also been director Benjamin T. Ismail’s passion since he first began to explore theater.

“I read it when I was 15 or 16, and I understood about a quarter of it, but I knew I had to direct it someday,” he said. “I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time, but I feel like I’ve got the right talent in the cast and production staff and enough experience under my belt that I’m ready to direct it.”

Arcadia will be followed in March by Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias, a “backstage story” about the rewrites for Gone With the Wind. Then, in April, Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe opens. It’s a violent, funny play about nasty people, and it’s one that Mahoney is looking forward to.

“We don’t want to scare people away, but Killer Joe has been on our minds for several years now,” she said. “We worried that it might be too much for some people, but it’s important, and it’s well-written. It’s not just theater for the sake of theater. We’re pushing ourselves to make better theater.”

In this case, that means being prepared to rebuild the set every night, thanks to the knock-down drag-out fights in Letts’ play.

Recent Tragic Events by Craig Wright opens in May, a mixed bag of grief and romantic comedy set in the aftermath of 9/11 that is sure to provoke discussion.

But Big Idea won’t linger long on thoughtful comedy, as company member Brian Harrower is turning the Bard of Avon loose on the living dead with his adaptation of Shakespeare: The Life & Undead of Henry V. This is not your ninth-grade English teacher’s Prince Hal; this King Henry V rallies his troops to stop an invasion of French zombies.

Ismail suspects that casting the completely alive speaking roles might be a problem, because “the whole company is lining up to beat down the door to play zombies.”

Sounds ambitious, but Big Idea has a reputation for fulfilling those ambitions.

“We choose productions that are often too large, too scary, too big for us, and then we all grab on and do the best we can with it,” said Mahoney. “Sometimes we end up saying, ‘Well, we could have done that one better,’ but we surprise ourselves that way, too.”