Arts & Events

Theater Review: Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia'—Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theater

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday January 31, 2012 - 09:51:00 PM
L-R Aaron Lindstrom as Valentine Coverly, Jody Christian as Hannah Jarvis, Alona Bach as Thomasina Coverly, Paul Stout as Septimus Hodge, and Rachel Ferensowicz as Chloe Coverly.
Anna Kaminska
L-R Aaron Lindstrom as Valentine Coverly, Jody Christian as Hannah Jarvis, Alona Bach as Thomasina Coverly, Paul Stout as Septimus Hodge, and Rachel Ferensowicz as Chloe Coverly.

A young early 19th century girl, learning about thermodynamics, asking her tutor the meaning of "carnal embrace" ... He replies it's about hugging a side of beef ... A garden in the new "scenic" style, sublime, with a hermitage—but where's the hermit? ... And almost 200 years later, speculation, conjecture—and a costume ball—on the former inhabitants and visitors of manor and garden, which may have included Lord Byron, and their thoughts, their secret loves—maybe a fatal duel over one of those loves ...

Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia' is on the boards at Live Oak Theater, and looks very good there, the set, props and costuming a triumph for Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. 

The play's a game, almost like tennis, but closer to ping-pong, played back and forth over the net of time, two households over a century apart, between the same walls. 

A thematic form of "Button, button, who's got the button" more than it is an intellectual sport, as its P. R. proclaims, 'Arcadia' does play off the waning of the Enlightenment, with its exultation of sensibility and nature, into the more willful thickets of Romanticism, contrasted with modern life—"civilization and its discontents," to lift Freud's title—with its constant attempts to aggrandize the past. 

Robert Estes has directed a game cast that throws itself into the fun of the thing, as well as the atmosphere—or atmospheres—of both worlds, which eventually link in a kind of exchange program. More than anything, the fun is the key, not the meaning of the game—not nearly so much ... 

The cast includes Alona Bach, Al Badger, Jody Christian, Barry Eitel, Rachel Ferensowicz, Christopher Kelly, Aaron Lindstrom, Shifra Pride Raffel, Jerome Solberg (also the producer, alternating with Greg Estes as Brice), Anthony Sorrels-Jager (alternating with Cameron Dodd as Augustus & Gus), Paul Stout and Matthew Surrence. Lively Alona Bach and resilient Jody Christian turn in particularly good performances in the foreground, with good character role underpinning by Al Badger and Matthew Surrence in support. Paul Stout has a good extended turn as Septimus Hodge, the tutor. 

The crew, more than 20, include Hilary Seeley (costumes), Alecks Rundell (lighting and lobby displays), Jerome Solberg and Gunnar Eilam (set design), Robert Herrera-Lopez (sound design/original music) and Carolyn Day and Corrine Proctor (dramaturgy). The construction crew—Bob Gudmundsson, Justin Scott, Adam Silva, Hugh Carlson and Vicki Siegal—deserve mention; much was created from scratch. The staging has been truly a collective effort. 

'Arcadia' flits back and forth between centuries for over two hours, with changing moods, but a constant comedic air. There's a constant argument in the dialogue, between the centuries and the different personalities and styles in each. Sometimes this gets obscured, partly because of the players' accents, which can be a drain on energy and attention. But the dialogue and its meaning-to-be-sorted-out is also where Jody Christian shines. The rapport between Paul Stout and Alona Bach is charming. Shifra Pride Raffel cuts a figure as Lady Croom, and Chloe Coverly is pixie to Christopher Kelly's windbag. 

(Besides the crowds attending 'Arcadia,' AE's been very busy: the Winter Staged Reading Series moves on next Tuesday to Stoppard's 'The Real Thing,' followed by Pirandello's masterpiece 'Henry IV' on Valentine's Day; and Improv at AE, a new series, features The Streetlight People and Five Deadly Improvisers this Sunday at 7, plus Chinese zither music at intermission.) 

'Arcadia' Fridays and Saturdays at 8 through February 18, and on Sunday February 12 at 2, at Live Oak Theater, Live Oak Park, 1301 Shattuck at Berryman, just a few blocks north of the Gourmet Ghetto. $12-$15. 649-5999;