Arcadia is likely the best of all the brilliant works by the genius English playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Real Thing, The Coast of Utopia, The Hard Problem). And by that, I mean that it is a superbly written, witty, intellectual yet earthy, genuinely funny play. First staged in London in 1993, the award-winning Arcadia was performed at ACT in San Francisco in 1995, and on Broadway in 1995 and 2011, among many other stagings.
Shotgun’s outstanding three-hour-and-ten-minutes production (including one intermission) seems to fly by as the theater-in-the-round audience watches and listens carefully to try to catch all the literary and scientific references. But it’s fine to let some of these references fly by and concentrate on the very human plot of love, sex, jealousy, ambition and scientific and literary discovery, which occurs 180 years apart.
The first scene opens in 1809 in Sidley Park, the Derbyshire country estate of Lady Croom (Danielle O’Hare) and her family. She has engaged her landscaper, Mr. Noakes (David Sinaiko), to re-design the estate’s gardens from the calm, green classical style to the au courant Gothic motif, complete with a hermitage and a ruin. A hesitant Lady Croom believes Sidley Park to be an “Arcadia” as it is, yet agrees to the change.
Her daughter, Thomasina Coverly (Amanda Ramos), then 13, is as brilliant in mathematics and science as she is impetuous. Thomasina’s 22-year-old tutor, Septimus Hodge (Max Forman-Mullin) has to think quickly to keep up with her, and there is evident affection between them. Thomasina’s questions about why one can’t un-stir the jam mixed into rice pudding becomes a scientific discussion about Newton’s law of motion.
In the meantime, Septimus is having an affair with the wife of failed poet Ezra Chater (Justin DuPuis), whose poetry Septimus is reviewing. Upon discovery of his wife’s infidelity, Chater challenges Septimus to a duel. Lord Bryon is also a guest at the estate but does not appear on stage.
Although throughout the play the scene never varies from the library at Sidley Park, further alternating (and finally, overlapping) scenes are set about 180 years later. In the present, we meet a new set of characters in modern-day dress — two modern literary detectives, Hannah Jarvis (Jessma Evans), a best-selling author, who is researching the early 19th-century hermit of Sidley Park, and Bernard Nightingale (Aaron Murphy), an ambitious, lusty professor who shows up at Sidley Park to work with Hannah. They are assisted by the current young-adult Coverly offspring, the mathematician Valentine (Gabriel Christian), Chloe (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera) and the silent Gus (Dean Koya).
The literary detectives have many questions about the 1809 activities in Sidley Park: who is the author of two scathing reviews of Ezra Chater’s poetry, did Lord Byron kill the poet Chater in a duel, and who is the hermit and why he is there. Before the play has concluded we will know the answers to these questions, despite some wrong-headed early suppositions.
The beauty of Arcadia is that it works enormously well on many different levels. It’s mostly an exquisitely written comedy, yet there is tragedy in it as well. And in what other play do the characters explore order vs. chaos theory, computer algorithms, thermodynamics, fractals, determinism vs. free will, landscape design, English literature, academic discoveries and competition, botany, love, ambition, classicism vs. modernism and jealousy?
Patrick Dooley’s first-rate direction, the uniformly excellent acting, especially by Max Forman-Mullin and Aaron Murphy, and the intimacy of the Ashby Stage, all help to make Shotgun’s production of Arcadia a remarkable success. I’ve now seen three different productions of Arcadia. Stoppard’s content is so rich that I’ve appreciated the play more with each sitting, so I highly recommend seeing Shotgun’s version of Arcadia . . . at least once.
Arcadia is playing at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley through Jan. 6. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.