Trouble in paradise
Comedy and philosophy challenge the characters of Arcadia
By Jenny Lower 09/26/2013
Santa Paula Theater Center’s Arcadia is a beautifully cast, marvelous adaptation of a witty, erudite masterpiece from one of our greatest living dramatists, Tom Stoppard, timed to coincide with the play’s 20th anniversary. Unfortunately, like its underage heroine, the show may have to reconcile itself to patiently awaiting those who appreciate its full merits.
At a recent Friday performance the audience shrank slightly following the halfway mark, presumably due to the vigorous repartee and a three-hour-long running time. That’s a shame because novice director Eric Stein (who completed his college honors thesis on Arcadia) has injected so much verve and intelligence into the production, the dialogue fairly crackles.
Set at the English country estate of Sidley Park, the story spans both the 19th century and modern day. The title alludes to a classical ideal of nature as idyllic, unspoiled paradise — one under threat at the play’s outset, as Lady Croom (Brandy Jones) partners with a landscaper to convert her proper English garden into rambling, overgrown romantic splendor. Meanwhile, self-satisfied tutor Septimus Hodge (Alex Choate) schools his brilliant pupil Thomasina (Natasha Schlaffer) in between fielding challenges to a duel over his sexual misdoings.
In the present, peppery scholastic Hannah (Jenna Scanlon) combs through the Croom papers for her book on the collapse of romanticism. Then rival scholar Bernard Nightingale (John Dantona) arrives, hunting clues to support his theory that Lord Byron once stayed at Sidley Park. There’s salacious historical gossip, a tortoise named Lightning and a swoony mathematician called Valentine (Tyler McAuliffe). The action shuttles back and forth, with present mirroring past even as both storylines tumble forward.
The script gets into some pretty heady stuff: discursions on determinism, Newtonian physics and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It matters, but equally important are the human dynamics at play — the uncontrollable attractive forces driving Septimus into ill-advised romantic pairings and spurring Valentine to declare Hannah, only half-facetiously, his fiancée.
Still, you have to have an appetite, or at least a tolerance, for this kind of literary detective work and its tongue-in-cheek takedown of modern academia. You have to care, at least a little, about questions like whether it’s possible to iterate an equation that could explain the behavior of the entire universe. If you can’t dredge up even the teensiest spark, you might find all this rather slow going.
But the actors make it jolly good fun. Arcadia is one of Stein’s passions, and he’s clearly done serious textual work with the cast, immersing them in the language so that the jokes, exquisitely pronounced in rounded English vowels, roll off their tongues with aplomb. Scanlon’s performance bristles with intelligence. Her snide rapport with the equally adept Dantona and the sweetly besotted McAuliffe inspires some of the evening’s best comic moments. Across the centuries, Choate charms as the wily Septimus, while Jones runs her household with suitable imperiousness. Special notice goes to high school sophomore Schlaffer, whose lovely Thomasina achieves the perfect mix of perceptiveness and ingenuousness. Lighting and set designers Gary Richardson and Mike Carnahan have devised a look that lets us fluidly transition between the ages with nary a hiccup.
There’s a reason the play, as cerebral as it is, ends with two couples dancing. The metaphysical eventually bows to the human. As Hannah says, it’s not figuring out the answers to life’s mysteries that’s the key. “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.” Arcadia’s questions ensure that audiences exit with more than they bargained for.
Arcadia, Santa Paula Theater Center, through Oct. 13. 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. 525-4645, santapaulatheatercenter.org.