'Arcadia' jumps between intertwined eras to tell an intricate story

The Pear Avenue Theatre's latest play, 'Arcadia,' toggles back and forth in time.
Arcadia TIME-CROSSED LOVERS: Arcadia is a warm and quite lovely human story of the impact of interactions between lively and believable characters.

TOM STOPPARD'S Arcadia is not a play to watch passively. It's a dizzying blend of science, math, history, art and literary references, which requires audiences to sit up, don their thinking caps and pay careful attention—the type of production that sends theater patrons directly to their Wikipedia apps during intermission.

It's also the kind of play that demands compelling performances and a great attention to detail from set designers, directors and actors alike. Pear Avenue Theatre Company boldly takes Arcadia on and offers a satisfying version of this modern English classic.

The drama is set in Sidley Park, a stately home in the Derbyshire countryside, with the storyline toggling between the early 19th century and the present day. In the older timeline, bright young Thomasina Coverly (Monica Ammerman) is tutored and flirted with by Septimus Hodge (Robert Sean Campbell), under the watchful eye of her mother, Lady Croom (Diane Tasca).

Lady Croom is also reluctantly overseeing the transforming of her lovely garden from a Classic design to a wilder landscape, complete with an as-yet empty hermitage. While Thomasina begins to astonish Septimus with her insightful probes into mathematics and science, his acquaintance Ezra Chater (Brian Flegel) challenges him to a duel for seducing his wife and criticizing his mediocre writing. Famous Romantic poet Lord Byron is behind the scenes stirring up trouble, college-age heir Augustus (Jason Pollak) teases his sister, and a beloved pet tortoise quietly witnesses all the goings on.

In the present day, author Hannah Jarvis (Elizabeth Kruse Craig) is researching the history of Sidley Park's gardens for a book on the English Romantic period. The estate is occupied by the current (unseen) lord and lady, as well as their three children: mathematical biologist Valentine (Michael Rhone), naive Chloe (Roneet Aliza Rahamim), and mute adolescent named Gus (Pollak again).

Jarvis is bemused by the arrival of arrogant professor Bernard Nightingale (Dan Kapler), her academic nemesis and personality opposite, who's on the hunt for a Sidley connection to Lord Byron and searching for clues tying him to a fatal duel. Hannah meanwhile desires to uncover the identity of the resident hermit.

Characters in the later timeline echo ideas expressed by those centuries before, such as a young woman asking a male mentor figure whether she's the first person to have thought of a certain visionary idea. And there's plenty of dramatic irony when the modern characters ponder clues from the past and sometimes misinterpret them.

The grand Sidley Park study provides the simple backdrop for both timelines (with lighting cues indicating a switch in era), and the wonderful time-travel aspect of the play is highlighted by the way the props (designed by Miranda Whipple) brought to the table in one time remain there, intermingled with those of the second. By the end of the play, the two timelines themselves have cleverly blended, allowing the action in both eras to unfold around each other.

Stoppard's play is wordy, full of highbrow citations, and dripping with big, interesting ideas. Classicism vs. Romanticism, arts vs. science, chaos vs. order, determinism, thermodynamics and more are all explored. Ultimately, though, mathematical models of the universe simply can't account for the disruptive influence of human emotions and attractions, and arts and sciences both have their place.

Despite its academic allusions, Arcadia is also a warm and quite lovely human story of the impact of interactions between lively and believable characters who, like all of us, are seeking meaning.

The actors playing the olden-day characters, their mouths full of Stoppard's wordplay and fancy British accents, can be occasionally difficult to understand when speaking quickly, but Ammerman's Thomasina is winsome and Campbell's Hodge believably charming. In the modern-day realm, I enjoyed everyone's performances, but my favorite was Kapler's Nightingale—a conceited blowhard, yet undeniably charismatic.

Arcadia is the final production staged in the intimate, hidden-away Pear Avenue space in Mountain View (the company is moving to a new, more spacious digs). It's an ambitious and rewarding choice for a last hurrah.


Pear Avenue Theatre, Mountain View

Thru Jul 12, 2pm and 8pm, $20-$30

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