Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia can prove quite a head-scratcher when not done right. Fortunately, despite brain-teasing elements that can challenge even the sharpest intellect, all-around superb acting and incisive direction make A Noise Within’s 25th-season opener as entertaining and accessible as Arcadias get.
Stoppard’s fascinating concept takes us from 1809 to the 1990s and back again as present-day family members investigate past mysteries in the elegant English country manse that for centuries the Coverlys have called home.
Those in the past engage in extramarital affairs, contemplate modernizing the estate gardens, and go outdoors to shoot grouse while present day characters draw entirely erroneous conclusions about the never seen Lord Byron’s participation in the 1809 intrigues and a mysterious recluse who may or may not have lived in the hermitage of the remodeled Coverly gardens.
The conceit proves enticing, 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, or when characters from both eras share the stage in the play’s final scene and things get heady indeed.
As characters in the past challenge each other to duels, those in the present blithely misinterpret clues left behind by their ancestors, leaving it to us in the audience to chuckle at the error of their ways.
With dramatis personae discussing physics, thermodynamics, computer algorithms, fractals, population dynamics, and chaos theory they way you and I might chat about the weather, a single viewing (or even repeat visits) may not suffice to grasp concepts a theater class might take weeks to hash out.
Elliott’s ensemble of classically trained actors know precisely which word to stress, when to pause, and how to make even the most scientific/intellectual dialog sound conversational.
Past-time Arcadians Rafael Goldstein (a dashingly macho Septimus), Erika Soto (a precocious delight as Thomasina), Abby Craden (divinely sultry as Lady Croom), and Jeremy Rabb (making Ezra Chater as fabulous as he is foolish) are all absolutely splendid, with finely-tuned cameos rendered by Mitchell Edmonds (Jellaby), Eric Curtis Johnson (Richard Noakes), and Stephen Weingarten (Captain Brice).
Matching them every step of the way are contemporary castmates Susan Angelo (mixing starch and sensuality as Hannah), Freddy Douglas (a deliciously scene-stealing Nightingale), Tavis Doucette (whose Valentine proves scientists can be sexy as they are sharp), and Jill Renner (combining intelligence and vivacity as Chloe), each and every one a polished gem.
Finally, spanning both eras is the brilliant young Richy Storrs, whose “on the spectrum” take on mute contemporary teen Gus countered with full-of-himself (and far from taciturn) 19th-century Augustus proves Stanislavsky’s assertion that “there are no small parts … .”
Arcadia is a visual stunner thanks to the simple but stately elegance of scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s dual-era set (scenic painting by Orlando de la Paz), Dillon Nelson’s plot-essential props, Jean-Yves Tessier’s vibrant lighting, and Leah Piehl’s century-spanning costumes topped by Danielle Richter’s equally fine wigs and makeup. Add to the above Robert Oriol’s expert sound design and mood-setting original music and you’ve got yet another memorable A Noise Within production design.
Josie Griffith-Roosth is stage manager and Gabrielle J. Bruno is assistant stage manager. Tracy Winters is dialect coach.
In less accomplished hands, Arcadia could prove more bewildering than bedazzling. At A Noise Within, it simply bedazzles.
A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.
September 10, 2106
Photos: Craig Schwartz