Tom Stoppard’s 1993 time-bending, mind-bending comedy Arcadia gets a sparkling new production at the American Conservatory Theater (through June 9) in San Francisco. The play concerns the residents and goings-on in an English country manor in both 1809 and the present day.
It’s not necessary to know a lot about British poetry, Lord Byron, romanticism, mathematics, physics, Isaac Newton, or thermodynamics to enjoy the play – but it certainly does help to know a little.
Stoppard’s academically inclined characters typically operate more from their heads than their hearts, and many of them in Arcadia are in full-tilt intellectual overdrive.
The deceptions and dalliances that occur among the 19th Century characters are played with delicious wit by the outstanding cast. The modern day characters include dueling academics, intent on proving what did or did not happen in the house 200 years ago.
The play really catches fire as a satire on modern academic theory, and when characters from both eras are finally juxtaposed together on stage. But this play-and-a-half is so overstuffed with ideas and plot lines, that one’s head occasionally begins to spin, especially as Act One draws to a close – and Stoppard never quite ties up all of the threads that one hopes he will by the end of the play.
This is Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s second crack at the play, which she first directed at A.C.T. in 1995. Her sure-handed staging, the show’s handsome design, and the humor and crisp performances of the exemplary cast, save the play from becoming the dizzying intellectual exercise that it might otherwise have been.