Playwright Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” may be set on a utopian country estate, but it is the characters that inhabit it that make the play as enchanting as it is. Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, with direction by Patrick Dooley, uses its firm grasp on the story and its characters to produce a captivating production that does justice to the intricacies of Stoppard’s writing.
“Arcadia,” named for the utopian-esque pastoral concept, connected to peace and harmony around which the play revolves, takes place in two different time periods — 1809 and 1992. The play opens in 1809 with a young but prodigal teenager, Thomasina Coverly (Amanda Ramos) in session with her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Max Forman-Mullin). From the opening scene, it becomes clear that the estate is full of drama and secrets — affairs, unrequited love and the (not seen on stage) famous Lord Byron as a guest.
Meanwhile, in 1992, at the same estate, the audience meets Hannah Jarvis (Jessma Evans) and Bernard Nightingale (Aaron Murphy), a garden historian and literature professor, respectively. The play shows the pair looking into the past and putting together the pieces of what happened to the people who inhabited it a century earlier. As the plot continues to go back and forth between time periods, the audience must piece together the narrative right alongside Hannah and Bernard.
Both storylines revolve around one set, made up of just a desk and chair, which sit on a circular stage. With the audience surrounding the stage, blocking can be tricky — but Dooley manages to create a seamless and natural flow of character movements. At one point, the two time periods merge, both happening on stage at once, dialogue intertwined and characters moving around each other. In this instance, their movements are beautifully manipulated to convey the two worlds that occupy the same space.
The plot is character driven, and Shotgun Players effectively utilizes the talent of the ensemble cast. The four actors who make up the leading pairs of each time period, however, are especially notable — Ramos and Forman-Mullin as Thomasina and Septimus, and Evans and Murphy as Hannah and Bernard. The relationship between Thomasina and Septimus is complex — what begins as a teacher-pupil relationship develops over the course of the plot into a deeper connection that is displayed without explicit statement or resolution. Ramos — who is, impressively, totally believable as a young teenager — and Forman-Mullin convey this evolving relationship alluringly, through a chemistry that becomes stronger as the play goes on.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Hannah and Bernard is much different — more forward and outwardly tumultuous. Despite initially getting off on the wrong note — Bernard writes a bad review of Hannah’s most recent book a bad review — the pair’s sexual tension is apparent right off the bat (as another character even points out). While there is no explicit getting together between these two, what exists between them is nonetheless already electric. Their rapport makes the content of the plot even more transfixing to watch unfold.
“Arcadia” is not driven by merely one element. Its plot is made up of many interwoven components: romance, mysteries, science and mathematics. Stoppard has carefully and efficiently layered these elements together into an attention-keeping drama. The cast and crew of Shotgun Players do justice to Stoppard’s story by maintaining a strong grasp on his wordy language and irresistibly tangled character arcs. It is worth every minute of the three-hour running time just to be able to be absorbed into this complex tale.
“Arcadia” is playing at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley through Jan. 6.
Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].