Live Oak Theatre gives lackluster rendition of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley/Courtesy

Tom Stoppard was allegedly in love when he wrote “Arcadia.” Lauded as one of the best plays of the 20th century, the script is brimming with love and passion, and not just carnal passion, but also passion for mathematics, for science, for learning, for history.

In the adaption presented by the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley and directed by Robert Estes, the curtain at the Live Oak Theatre rose in time with pounding drum beats.  Strips of cloth arranged in a geometric pattern hung behind mismatched wooden furniture in a staging that remained for the entire show. The juxtaposition of the modern with the traditional reflects the play’s dichotomies: the juxtaposition of romance and science, and of time periods. The scenes alternate back and forth between the early 1800s and the present day.

Both stories are set in an English country house as the characters work through a tangle of mysteries to uncover different truths. The young Thomasina Coverly (Alona Bach) studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Paul Stout), and raises mathematical ideas far ahead of her time. One hundred and eighty years later, two scholars, a mathematics graduate student and the house’s residents gradually uncover information about the estate’s past residents. The two stories echo back and forth as complex theories and romantic tension build.

Given such a loaded script, it was disappointing to watch the actors bounce the words around without deep chemistry or regard for the larger themes that dictate Stoppard’s play. Unconvincing British accents were the most obvious flaw. With few exceptions, the actors frequently slipped into American accents and struggled with the rapid-spoken mouth fulls, rendering portions of the dialogue indiscernible.

Perhaps because they had to exert such effort to deliver their lines, many of the actors gave prepackaged expressions of emotions that seemed over practiced. Chloe Coverly’s (Rachel Ferensowicz) eyelash batting and ear-to-ear smiling in the young scholar’s direction lacked believability. In the first act, Bernard Nightingale’s (Christopher Kelly) over-the-top enthusiasm translated a forced caricature of a researcher unearthing game-changing information, although he did grow more comfortable in his role in the second act and came across as more authentic.

While he induced audible laughter from the audience, the household servant, Jellaby (Matthew Surrence), of the earlier time period was a frustrating element of the play. Cheap attempts at humor, his robotic speaking manner and bizarre way of walking were ultimately distracting. His purpose in the narrative is important — to relay messages and gossip in the house — yet such oddball idiosyncrasies seemed unnecessary.

Although Bach’s Thomasina also adhered too closely to the textbook-style acting, her passionate spirit and doe-eyed innocence conveyed her rich character. Because of Thomasina’s central role in advancing the plot’s intricacy, a successful actor in that role is indispensable in “Arcadia.” She was by no means awe-inspiring, but served her purpose and neutralized the performance’s other shortcomings.

A play revolving around the processes of solving and discovering new knowledge requires actors who present challenges to the viewer as well. With actors that gave themselves away too easily, the audience members were not able to make their own discoveries about the characters’ experiences and emotions. For a play written by someone in love, the passion on stage was muted. It almost would have been more effective to read the play than to watch it.