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Photograph by David Allen

Learned Matters: Amanda Moody and Clive Worsley plot a landscape design while John Mercer observes.

No Walk in The Park

Dense 'Arcadia' at TheatreWorks tackles thorny subjects in two eras

By Marianne Messina

THEATREWORKS' production of Arcadia, a Tom Stoppard play best read before viewing, opens in 1809 on the grand room of the Coverly country estate. An elegant creation of scenic designer Duke Durfee, the high-ceilinged hall is flanked by an expanse of French doors through which we see the marble-columned balcony beyond. For Stoppard, it's the era of Romantic poets and picturesque landscaping, the interface of classical and Romantic thought, a place where determinism meets chaos.

And in the first scene, Lady Croom (a strutting Amanda Moody) engages landscaper Richard Noakes (John Mercer) in a lively discussion about his picturesque notions. Noakes' wild and Gothic "natural wilderness" is Lady Croom's "eruption of gloomy forests." And his proposal for a faddish hermit dwelling meets with Lady Croom's "What's this rustic hovel that presumes to superpose itself on my gazebo?"

The tug and pull of worldviews (not to mention landscaping theory) is taken up in Scene 2 by the contemporary Coverlys and historians trying to piece together the family's past. It's mildly amusing to watch the modern-day characters misconstrue the history, culled from a girl's school journal, a game book (recording who killed what game on a given day) and unsigned letters pressed into the pages of an antique book. Stoppard's sweeping vision of the recombinant psychic strands woven into the passing eras has bittersweet theatrical potential, but he forsakes much of it for intellectual rigor. The love relationships in two time periods are pallid, churned up in a clockwork of mathematical metaphors and parallel polemics.

The warmest moments happen between the 1809 character, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (delightful Alison Walla), and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Christopher Kelly). Their relationship is open and fond. The cheerful, carelessly ingenious Thom grasps Hodge's lessons in philosophy and mathematics on instinct. She rejects determinism and a geometry with which "God could only make a cabinet" (as opposed to irregular natural shapes) and begins plotting a self-reflexive formula in her notebook (incidentally discovering fractal mathematics).

Intrigued by the formula, Hodge continues where Thom leaves off. Nearly 200 years later, when mathematician Valentine Coverly (Kai Morrison) discovers Thomasina's algorithm, he is able to feed it into his laptop. The present-day scenes offer a nice interplay between Morrison's soft, tortoise-loving Val and Jennifer Erin Roberts' Hannah, his cynical, guarded fiancee. And the rivalry between Hannah and snobbish Lord Byron scholar Bernard Nightingale (J. Paul Boehmer, who is most enjoyable when pontificating) can be amusing.

The full enchantment of the play doesn't unfold until the final scenes, where the members of both time periods occupy the stage simultaneously. Then, characters from one period freeze while the others come alive, or both move among each other while the music of two eras (the "pianoforte," alas, is a modern piano) clashes merrily over the stage (thanks to the clever sound design by Cliff Caruthers). Though Stoppard's text, for all its claims to be inspired by love, comes more from the head than the heart (memorize the program notes before the show), TheatreWorks manages to maximize the moments of pathos with production elements: Walla's perky acting, Pamila Gray's emotive lighting, Fumiko Bielefeldt's period dress and the patient, lethargic tortoise (egregiously missing from the cast credits) that defies time.

Arcadia, a TheatreWorks production, plays Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm on June 27 and July 11 (with added 2pm show June 27; show ends July 11. Plays at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$50. (650.903.6000)

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From the June 23-29, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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