Order and chaos

The Pear tackles Stoppard's heady 'Arcadia'

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," currently in production at the Pear Avenue Theatre, is not an easy play to sum up. Even labeling it a comedy is perilous, though it certainly sparkles with Stoppard's trademark wit. The Czech-born English playwright is known for elaborately researched works that tackle big ideas, and "Arcadia" is no exception. In a brisk two and a half hours, Stoppard's characters discuss everything from chaos theory to literary criticism, population dynamics to landscape gardening, entropy to the Enlightenment, Newtonian determinism to the travels of Lord Byron.

Along the way, there are some less intellectual themes: sexual desire, infidelity and jealousy (both romantic and professional). To complicate things further, the play's action alternates between two different eras separated by roughly two centuries.

The play begins in 1809 at Sidley Park, the Coverly family's manorial home, ruled by the sharply opinionated Lady Croom. Also in residence at Sidley Park are Lady Croom's intellectually precocious 13-year-old daughter, Thomasina; Thomasina's too-clever-by-half tutor, Septimus Hodge; Lady Croom's brother, Captain Brice; the estate's resident poet, Ezra Chater; and Chater's wife. The latter, though never seen on stage, is the catalyst for much of the play's action, as her dalliances with both Hodge and Captain Brice spur her husband to take up dueling pistols in defense of her indefensible honor.

The final 19th-century personage worth mention is Richard Noakes, a muzzy-headed landscape architect who seeks to transform Sidley Park's geometrically formal English garden into a ramshackle Romantic-era vision of untrammeled Nature. This transformation echoes one of Stoppard's chief themes in "Arcadia," namely, the overthrow of reason and intellect by wild, unruly, human passions.

Meanwhile, in the present day, a new generation of Coverlys -- mathematician Valentine and his teenage siblings, mute Gus and sexually precocious Chloe -- play host to a new generation of dueling intellectuals. Hannah Jarvis is researching the history of Sidley Park's gardens, and Bernard Nightingale is tracking down a possible link between Lord Byron and the justly forgotten Ezra Chater. As the pair comb through the surviving letters and journals from Lady Croom's era, bickering over standards of proof, Valentine grapples with some curious annotations in Thomasina's lesson book, trying to determine if the musings of an early-19th-century teenager actually prefigure one of the most profound mathematical discoveries of the late 20th century.

If you're thinking all of this sounds a bit left-brainy, you're not wrong. For the actors, the obvious challenge of "Arcadia" lies in rattling off great volumes of exposition -- scientific theories, historical allusions, etc. -- in a way that allows the audience to follow the various threads of Stoppard's polymathic script without recourse to footnotes or Adderall ... all while maintaining consistent British accents.

Director Jeanie K. Smith has cast good people and coached them well, and they handle the daunting text with aplomb. Elizabeth Kruse Craig (Hannah) and Dan Kapler (Bernard) are particularly gifted: They seem to share an innate sense of rhythm that allows them to land each obscure academic tidbit as surely as they land each punchline. Monica Ammerman (Thomasina), Diane Tasca (Lady Croom) and Michael Rhone (Valentine) are also reliably comprehensible. Robert Sean Campbell is charmingly wily as Hodge, but he sometimes hurries his lines in a way that doesn't allow the ideas to stick.

Other actors do less of the intellectual heavy lifting. Charles McKeithan is suitably imposing as Captain Brice, and Jason Pollak uses his smile to great effect as the silent Gus. Nicolae Muntean (Noakes) and Roneet Aliza Rahamim (Chloe) both have some endearingly awkward moments. Brian Flegel is a serviceable Ezra Chater, though the style of his performance is slightly askew, as though he's playing a Shakespearean fool surrounded by Wildean savants.

Several of Smith's actors -- most notably Ammerman and Rahamim -- are obviously the wrong age for their parts. The problem is not that they don't look like teenagers -- in the case of Thomasina, it would be nearly impossible to find an actual 13-year-old smart and skillful enough to tackle the role -- but rather that they don't seem to be playing teenagers. Bumping Chloe's age upward may be a valid directorial choice; Thomasina's, less so.

But if the production has a single, overarching flaw, it is this: The cast's concentration on elucidating the thorny text sometimes gives short shrift to the play's subtext, to the emotional through-lines of Stoppard's characters. One or two actors seem so focused on spitting out the science and the dialect that characterization gets lost. More than once, characters storm off stage in fits of pique that seem to arise from nowhere, and sexual attractions are mentioned in dialogue that are not otherwise visible.

These are the sorts of problems, though, that are likely to iron themselves out with repeated performance, as the actors gain fluency with the material and grow into their roles.

The Pear's "Arcadia" may not be perfect -- it's doubtful that any production could be -- but it is a funny, vigorous, well-executed production of one of the most complex and intriguing plays of the last quarter century.

What: Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia"

Where: The Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View

When: Through July 12, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Extra performance Wednesday, July 1, at 8 p.m. No performance July 4.

Cost: Tickets range from $20-$30.

Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.

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