Shotgun's 'Arcadia' Takes Up The Drama Of Those Who Come Last

Every play is an occasion in waiting. And every production a team of handmaidens charged with bringing that occasion to life. And so if the first two sentences are correct and they most certainly are not, we might have an answer for why it’s so pleasurable to return to plays again again. With each new gang of artists comes a set of new possibilities previously unimagined and unrealized. Forget the world premiere, which skates along on the promise of new life; the revival is where the gamblers gather to make their wagers—there’s a reason we cheer at the roulette table.

Of all the theater companies in the Bay Area, the Shotgun Players, under founding artistic director Patrick Dooley’s guidance, is the most keen to the notion that theater is an occasion, that each performance is a gamble and a celebration of the play and the community that comes to see it. And it makes sense that Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia would represent a tantalizing bet for them. At his best, Stoppard is all about celebrations and Arcadia with its dual time periods (1809 and the present) is an attempt to feel the joy of the past in our fallen present.

The situation in Stoppard’s 1809 is all dazzle. Dashing Septimus Hodge is in the midst of tutoring 13-year old Tomasina Coverly in higher mathematics and sidestepping her deeper and burgeoning interest in “carnal embrace”—a phrase she overheard from her mother’s landscape architect, Richard Noakes—when fashion disaster and poet Ezra Chater bursts in to challenge Hodge to a duel for apparently engaging in the aforementioned carnal embrace with Chater’s wife.

That’s a lot of complication for the first five minutes of a play and Stoppard lays it out masterfully, as if he were merely lighting a match for the joy of contemplating fire.

That Hodge dodges Chater’s challenge with false compliments and continues his lessons with Tomasina is immensely pleasurable, at least for the audience. In fact, Hodge’s dodging is the fuel that lights much of the first act. He is both an object of desire for his teacher-struck student Tomasina, as well as her mother Lady Croom, and an object of envy for most everyone else—Chater, Captain Brice (Tomasina’s Uncle), presumably Lord Coverly (Lady Croom’s husband and Tomasina’s father), the landscape architect Noakes (the snitch) and the butler (the latter two perfectly played by David Sinaiko camping out in deadpan valley).

The play then zips to the present with a less dazzling set of characters. Less dazzling I guess because they were born after the first set. Using the artifacts and records of 1809, they try to unearth the secrets of this particular English estate, the aptly named Sidley Park. There, in the present that is, Hannah Jarvis, a best-selling biographer of Lord Byron’s mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Bernard Nightingale—the type of weasel native to Literature departments the world over—battle, collaborate, and battle again over the mounting evidence that something of real significance happened at this estate, maybe involving Byron, a duel, death, a hermit, changing tastes in garden design, and possibly even weightier cultural concerns.

These two dueling writers are guests of the present owner of Sidley Park, another Lady Croom (never seen, but well played by the idea of her absence) and her children—party girl Chloe (smitten with Bernard), mathematics graduate student Valentine (smitten with Hannah), and their mute younger brother Gus (also smitten with Hannah). No matter what century it is to be a Coverly is to be lost to love.

Part of the pleasure of Arcadia is the way those in the present mistake the actions of the those in the past, though by the end they piece together the elusive past—as Valentine claims, “nothing is lost forever,” an idea that Stoppard seems to somewhat endorse, both emotionally and mathematically (chaos theory). But all this plot and ideas, though enjoyable, is not what matters here.

I want to talk about the Shotgun Players’ production and the occasion of the theater.

The going line on Arcadia is that the 1809 scenes are more riveting than the ones that take place in the present, that the romance of the past approaches the epic and the romance of the present is by necessity a radical diminution. It’s not just the costumes and the lure of the exotic, but also the ways in which Stoppard frames the drama—the present is obsessed with the past in ways that the past can never reciprocate.

Yet, Dooley’s production reverses the equation to immense benefits to the play. He accomplishes this partially through architecture. Set designer Deanna Zibello has reconfigured the Ashby stage into something close to the round, let’s call it the oblique, and a good deal of the audience is enveloped within the set. They aren’t quite participants (that would be gauche), but they’re certainly more engaging and dynamic than flats and backdrops.

That shift in perspective puts symbolic pressure on the center of the stage. You see it in the opening scenes between Hodge and Tomasina, where the other characters seem to infiltrate the citadel of learning to comic, perverse, and sometimes disarming effect. I don’t think it worked as well as it could on opening night, but it’s the right idea for the right play at the right time. In fact, the whole of the first act seemed a little too earthbound, though still bubbling with pleasures.

But then something strange happened, if that’s possible in the theater.

As much as I admire Shotgun, I’ve never really taken to their raffles at intermission. I often feel the raffle interrupts my relationship with the play and production. I want to get on with the action and they’re giving away wine cozies and cute socks. But this raffle, in this production, serving this play and playwright, raises the intermission raffle to high art and the good cheer of a winter evening.

Presided over by two supporting first-act characters, the poet manqué Thomas Chater and the bullish and brutish Captain Brice, Justin DuPuis and Adam Niemann in their respective roles improvise their way through a ten-minute comic romp that gets at the spirit of occasion that lives deep in the soul of Shotgun and Stoppard.

After that, the production takes off and instead of getting a past a thousand times more vibrant than the present, Dooley and Shotgun gives us a present that enlivens every aspect of the past over and over again. Or following the logic of the play, chaos keeps returning to reveal all the ways in which the good in people flourishes.

The present day cast is exceptionally strong and you feel the urgency of historical research as well as the desperate romance of giving it life in the lonely (Jessma Evan’s Hannah), avaricious (Aaron Murphy’s Bernard), kind (Gabriel Christian’s Valentine), wacky (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera’s Chloe) and lovelorn (Dean Koya’s Gus) eyes of each of them. There’s a glint of a flame dancing in every sidelong glance and icy stare and they’re all just waiting for the right occasion to let it burn. And the second act of this production gives it to them.

One More Thought

I can’t remember the Ezra Pound poem, it’s one of the early cantos or maybe just a stanza of one of the cantos, but Pound depicts a 16th century Italian scholar running from a library (?) across a square (?) to report to someone (?) about a manuscript from antiquity (?) of a long lost and still undiscovered truth (?). For me, it is the most exciting moment in all of Pound, I never forgot it, and it reminded me of the second half of this production.

Does anyone remember or know of this moment?

‘Arcadia’ runs through January at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.