The venerable Sierra Madre Playhouse challenges its subscribers and theatergoing regulars with something quite different in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, an intellectual comedy whose characters discuss physics, thermodynamics, computer algorithms, fractals, population dynamics, and chaos theory—as well as others of a slightly less scientific bent.

On the plus side, the play has a fascinating setup. Scenes move from 1809 to the present day (and back again) on the same English country home set, with the final scene featuring characters from both eras on stage at once. An enticing conceit, particularly when props set down on desks or easels during past-tense action get picked up by contemporary characters trying to solve 19th Century riddles.

The 1809 plotline has family members and guests on the Coverly estate engaging in extramarital affairs, modernizing the estate gardens, and shooting grouse. Present day characters investigate the mysteries of the past and draw entirely wrong conclusions about the never seen Lord Byron’s participation in the 1809 intrigues and a mysterious hermit who may or may not have lived in the hermitage of the remodeled Coverly gardens..

Also working in the production’s favor are the performances of its accomplished cast, which includes the Antaeus Company’s Ovation and LADCC Award-winning Gigi Bermingham as well as others from Antaeus and Road Company productions. Direction by Barbara Schofield is spot-on, and costumes (by Valentino’s Costumes) as well as Schofield and Don Bergmann’s set design give the show a classy, highly professional sheen.

At his most accessible, Stoppard can be funny indeed, as when 19th Century tutor Septimus Hodge tries to explain away his 13-year-old pupil’s question about the meaning of “carnal embrace” by defining it as “hugging a side of beef.” There are delicious double entendres, as when the not terribly bright poet Ezra Chater inscribes Septimus’s copy of his collection of verse with the words, “To my friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the author,” clueless that Hodge and Mrs. Chater had recently had “sexual congress”—vertical style—in the gazebo. Characters in the past challenge each other to duels, and those in the present blithely misinterpret clues left behind by those living in 1809.

At his least accessible, which is often, Stoppard bounces around scientific, literary, and other scholarly notions in the guise of everyday chats which may leave audience members as perplexed as the gentleman seated behind this reviewer who asked his companion at intermission, “Are you getting any of this, because I certainly am not.”

For the most part, performances could not be better. 1809 standouts include Alexandra Goodman as the precocious Thomasina, T.J. Marchbank as her dashing tutor Septimus, and Kendra Chell as the flirtatious Lady Croom. In the present, in addition to the divine Bermingham as investigative author Hannah, there is excellent work by Benjamin Burdick as the flamboyant loose cannon Bernard, Paul Romero as the serious, analytical Valentine, and Felicia Tabrizi as the flighty Chloe. Completing the cast in smaller but well-delineated roles are John Coombs (Jellaby), Phil Apoian (Chater), Aaron Michael Jackson (Noakes), Mark A. Cross (Captain Brice) , and Liam Swan (as 1809 Augustus and 2010 Gus). Accents are mostly excellent, despite a mispronounced “understand” or “progress” here and there, though a dialect coach (none is credited) could have helped a couple of actors essaying minor parts.

Jason Mullin’s mostly very good lighting design had a few malfunctions at the performance reviewed. Barry Schwam’s sound design is spot-on. Estelle Campbell is stage manager.

Audiences would do well to come prepared for Arcadia. There are several online study guides available. Even better would be to read the play in advance. Also, the more you know about modern physics (about which this reviewer understands virtually nil), the more you will “get” what Stoppard is going for here.

In the final analysis, I admire this production for its performances and direction. Conversely, it is one that is likely to leave many of its audience members (who stay for both acts) scratching their heads even as they applaud the cast’s splendid work.

Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.

–Steven Stanley
June 19, 2010
Photos: Donald Songster

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