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Et in ARCADIA Ego: a review of Stoppard’s ARCADIA at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players

January 2, 2019 § 1 Comment

Start Your New Year Right!

I saw a lot of great theatre in 2018 from all over the world, and will be writing a bit more about it here soon. However, if you are looking for a bit of good news to launch the new year, look no further than the announcement that one of my top ten picks is still available! Patrick Dooley’s sublime production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia has extended through Jan 27 at Shotgun Players in Berkeley. For those who love the theatre of words and ideas, Stoppard’s play is always a treat, but Dooley’s production exceeds expectations in every way.

Max Forman-Mullin as Septimus Hodge; Amanda Ramos as Thomasina Coverly. All photos by Ben Krantz Studios.

Why is a Shakespearean writing about Stoppard?

An aside: My usual beat is early modern drama, especially Shakespeare, and although I like a lot of other plays and periods, I rarely write about modern drama. The reason for this is simply that the dividing line between pre-modern and modern drama is usually drawn at the advent of realism where plays suddenly start being about characters who are psychologically complex but generally inarticulate about their feelings and may not understand their own motivations.

Jessma Evans as Hannah Jarvis, Gabriel Christian as Valentine Coverly; two characters in the modern scenes of the play who struggle to understand and express themselves.

My critical expertise falls on the other side of that line, with characters who are brilliantly (if unrealistically) expressive and articulate–to the point that they can sometimes put their thoughts into verse with healthy doses of rhetorical flourishes thrown in. In short, I write about performance of heightened language.

Usually the line falls more or less historically at the advent of the twentieth century, but in 2018, I saw two productions (both in Berkeley) of modern plays with linguistic brilliance that rivaled that of any classic. In the summer, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at Berkeley Rep (with the amazing Stephen Spinella, the original Prior Walter, in role of Roy Cohn) was a–no pun intended–revelation.

A Small Theatre with Huge Impact

Surprisingly, given the very different level of resources available and invested, Shotgun Players’ late winter production of Arcadia was completely on par with the Rep’s Kushner. Shotgun’s company of exceptional actors, especially Max Forman-Mullin as Septimus Hodge and Amanda Ramos as Thomasina Coverly, invested in Stoppard’s non-stop wordplay (see what I did, or at least tried, there?) with wit, agility and stunning emotional honesty.

Amanda Ramos as Thomasina Coverly and Max Forman-Mullin as Septimus Hodge on Deanna L Zibello’s set with audience seated directly on the stage surrounding the players.

Patrick Dooley’s brilliant direction found every nuance in this incredibly complex plot and made it look easy, which I know from having directed this play myself, is not. In an extraordinary director’s note, Dooley emphasized the socio-political implications of the play beyond its dazzling theme and variations on love and lust, which brought even greater contemporary resonance to a play already considered a modern masterpiece.

Shotgun is a special place, and this production capitalizes on all their strengths. Their space is intimate, and made more so for this production. Rows of audience are set up on stage to create an arena staging, putting even more audience members right next to the action. The cast is as good as they have ever assembled, under their founding artistic director, who assembles very good casts. Most of all, however, is the experience of seeing this play with Shotgun’s loyal, and let’s face it, exceptional audience. The level of familiarity with this play and knowledge of the huge range of subject matters it deals with, from the history of English landscape gardening, to the poetry and personal exploits of Lord Byron, and on to modern fractal geometry, was astonishing.

Aaron Murphy as Bernard Nightingale, a contemporary “expert” on Lord Byron.

(At intermission, an elderly couple seated next to me noticed I was making a few notes and volunteered to explain the convoluted plot to me. I accepted the offer without revealing that I knew this play very well already, and then got my comeuppance when they demonstrated, without the slightest condescension, that they actually knew it even better. It was a treat to hear their detailed and excited explication.)

Not just a Company, but a Community

A theatre is not just the artists and staff, it is also the community that they create. It is a different experience to see a play with an audience this receptive and perceptive–one to be relished. The play was sensitively interpreted by set designer Deanna L. Zibello’s minimalist arena aided greatly by the work of prop designer Devon Labelle, costume designer Brooke Jennings’ nicely coordinated period and modern costumes, lighting designer Sarina Renteria’s clever rendering of time, and Cliff Caruther’s sound design. I suspect that an unsung hero of the production might be dramaturg Dave Garrett.

Shotgun’s charming company photo, showing the complete cast and crew–emphasizing the collaborative nature of this company.

Get your year started right–go see this play. I assure you it will make you feel better about the times we live in, the state of the theatre, and the bright futures of some exceptional artists.

Production Information:

Arcadia is playing through Jan 27
Shotgun Players
1901 Ashby Avenue Berkeley, CA 94703

Tel: 510.841.6500


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§ One Response to Et in ARCADIA Ego: a review of Stoppard’s ARCADIA at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players

  • I really enjoyed your reactions, knowing that you too are a director and that you had directed Arcadia yourself. Observing Shotgun Players’ masterful execution of this play, it felt to me that I was experiencing something extraordinary, and now, on reading your review, I feel even more certain that this is true. Thank you

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