Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Life of the Mind

March 21, 2011

Bel Powley, Raúl Esparza, Lia Williams and Tom Riley in Arcadia Photo: Joan Marcus

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is one of those towering works of art that brims with so much everything that it is sometimes hard to get a sense of the quality of any individual performance. This feature of the play is further enhanced by the fact that the work is not yet 20 years old and unlike any number of canonical classics, Arcadia has not racked up the number of revivals that would make it intimately familiar to the average theater goer. So it should be said that the new revival of Stoppard's play that opened last week in New York should be required viewing for anyone unfamiliar with it, although that is not to say it meets or exceeds any and all expectations. Arcadia's greatness rests in part on its wordy eloquence, but more importantly its sheer scope. The play deals with any number of topics and operates simultaneously on a number of levels that are rarely all decipherable on a first viewing. It's an academic mystery, a comedy, and a romance all at the same time. There are two main story lines unfolding in the same single room of an English country estate over a century apart. In the early 19th century, Septimus Hodge is employed as a tutor to the daughter of the estate, Thomasina Coverly. Amidst some comic romantic shenanigans, Hodge is slowly discovering the radical genius of his sole pupil. Meanwhile in the late 20th century two warring academics, Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, have separately converged on the modern-day Coverlys with their own literary and gardening mysteries to solve regarding events unfolding during Hodge's time. Of course, this description only begins to scratch the surface of a play that actively engages higher mathematics, aesthetic history, English Literature, physical science, botany, Classics, and politics of the academic, sexual, and garden variety.

The production, which is directed by David Leveaux, is imported from London's West End where it was one of the highlights of 2009. It has a simple but effective design that provides as little clutter as possible for Stoppard's great flow of ideas. Scenes that take place nearly a century apart increasingly unfold simultaneously in the same space, but never in a manner that is confusing. And although it is otherwise completely faithful to that predecessor, this Arcadia has been recast with predominantly American actors including Raúl Esparza and Billy Crudup who now appears as Bernard Nightingale but was cast in the original new York run of Arcadia in 1995 as Septimus Hodge. Notably, there are three Brits among the cast including Lia Williams as Hannah Jarvis, Tom Riley as Septimus Hodge, and Bel Powley as Thomasina Coverly. All were excellent. The Americans succeeded to a greater or lesser extent with a variety of accent stability. I was least taken with Esparza's Valentine Coverly who seemed less a frustrated scientist often thrust out of his element than a stage actor playing one.

But there is so much beauty in Arcadia that it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all despite any superficial flaws in the edifice. And all of this is accomplished both in spite of and due to a dense, heavily detailed text that races by far too quickly over three hours in a blaze of poetry for one to grasp before it is gone like some disintegrating treasure.

Ryan Fletcher and Vicki Manderson in Beautiful Burnout Photo: Gavin Evans

On the other theatrical hand this weekend was Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. The play, produced under the auspices of The National Theater of Scotland and London-based collective Frantic Assembly, is an unrelated second project from Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett who were responsible for the widely praised production of The National Theater of Scotland's Black Watch, which took the US by storm four years ago. Granted, I was not in the majority opinion on that one. Though I thought it was well choreographed and visually interesting, it was otherwise rather predictable and hollow. Beautiful Burnout incorporates a similar visual and physical sense to Black Watch within a highly masculine context that is brought to life with the intimate physicality of dance. This is one sharp looking production with a large rotating stage that foregrounds a large multi-monitor video display. The rub, however, is that this is still a play with an actual script by Bryony Lavery that barely rises to the level of the proverbial Wallace Beery wrestling picture. I'd give you a spoiler alert for Beautiful Burnout, but telling you to string together every boxing movie cliche you can think of into a single plot somehow doesn't seem to exactly qualify for that particular warning. It's eye candy to be sure, but Beautiful Burnout can't really make it to the end of the round.


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