Review: Arcadia, A.C.T, San Francisco

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I have to admit, I just don’t understand the rave reviews everyone gives this play. I consider it more an intellectual exercise than a drama. There are no guts to it. It is all about head trips and casual sex with nothing in between. I really wanted to care, but I couldn’t find anything to care about.

For a play supposedly about so many types of knowledge and its pursuit (romantic, literary, mathematical, and so forth), I came away feeling that I really hadn’t learned anything. It was so much chatter by characters for whom I had no empathy. Is that the point of it? The uselessness of knowledge and the lack of meaning once youth and innocence have gone?

The beginning of the play has freshness and wit. In the year 1809, a young girl asks her handsome tutor the meaning of “carnal embrace.” What a wonderful way to start. Then, a farcical plot of the cuckold husband emerges as the audience realizes that the tutor is the rogue lover. I’m not a big fan of farces, but the pacing is good and the mathematical and existential musings of the brilliant young student are promising.

However, when the action switches to the modern era, the energy and interest drop off. The characters are bloated, islands of ego who pursue pet theories on Byron, a fictitious hermit, and an algorithm based on an old hunting log, which all refer back to the period of the first scene.

Throughout the play, the scenes switch back and forth between the two time periods and finally merge in the end. Slathered on top of this literary acrobatics is a good dose of Stoppardian wisdom. Much of it I do not buy. The young pupil, Thomasina, expresses grief at the great loss of Greek knowledge and theater during the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and her tutor replies:

We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those left behind. The procession is very long and life is short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

Does this really sound like something a handsome young playboy who shags everyone’s wife would say? These are words of someone who has given up, the musings of middle age or later life, not those of an impassioned young man. Has he not heard of the Dark Ages? From what galaxy is he looking back at the Earth?

The play ends on a touching scene–when there’s nothing left to say, it is better to shut up and dance…the waltz, of course. It is true that much of the science and math were over my head (Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Chaos Theory, and so forth). But even if I had boned up on all of these and read the script ahead of time, I still need to have characters that I care about–none of them seemed real to me. Despite Stoppard’s brilliance and the professional acting, I give the production a B rating. The setting and lighting were excellent.

Thank goodness for real people, the audience. Here’s a fellow who has something to share (a t-shirt from his wife’s high school in beautiful Arcadia, Wisconsin):

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Performances are extended through June 16. For more information, see: http://www.act-sf.org/1213/arcadia/

Discount tickets are available at: http://www.goldstar.com/events/san-francisco-ca/arcadia

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