Name that playwright
by Roberto Friedman
What if we told you that we had just seen a play that combined investigations into chaos theory, English landscape design, Lord Byron literary scholarship and waltz lessons, and that it was a gentle romance? You'd say the playwright had to be Tom Stoppard, and you'd be right. The play is his Arcadia, in a return to ACT directed by ACT artistic director and Stoppard enthusiast Carey Perloff, and it's the master of cerebral confections presented at his most accessible and romantic.
You don't have to have any prior acquaintance with Fermat 's Last Theorem or the Second Law of Thermodynamics to understand the play, though both scientific axioms do figure into its plot. For one thing, both scientific concepts are patiently explained, and secondly, they're meant as metaphors, to describe loss, or the dying heat of a romantic alliance. In brief, an English country house is visited in two time periods. In the 19th century, precocious student Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman) tends a crush on her tutor Septimus Hodge (Jack Cutmore-Scott), who is busy with his own erotic roundelays. In the present day, literary scholars including Hannah Jarvis (Gretchen Egolf ) and Bernard Nightingale (Andy Murray ) attempt to unravel some of the great house's history, including a possible Byronic connection.
As in any Stoppard creation, there's plenty more going on than the above reduction would indicate. Also as usual, the ACT cast is first-rate, including all of the principals mentioned above, and Julia Coffey as the lady of the house, Nichols Pelczar as a fatuous poet, Adam O'Byrne as latter-generation gentry, and the ever-inventive Ken Ruta, who makes the most out of a small turn as the butler.
As she has shown in previous productions of Indian Ink, The Invention of Love, Night and Day, Travesties and Rock n' Roll, Perloff has a real feel for and connection to the masterworks of Tom Stoppard. Her Arcadia juggles lots of content, intellectual and emotional, but presents its plot and characters with passion and clarity. This is a play worth making a study of. Through June 9; tickets at (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.
What if we told you that we also attended a play last week that was a trenchant, knowing account of British suburban life, as revealed during a neighborly cocktail party circa the 1970s? You might guess the playwright is Mike Leigh, known for his "kitchen-sink realism" films like Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake and Another Year, and again you'd be right. San Francisco Playhouse's production of Leigh's Abigail's Party, directed by Amy Glazer, opened last weekend with an ensemble cast of Julia Brothers, Susi Damilano , Patrick Jones, Remi Sandri and Allison White.
The play itself is a product of the 70s, written in 1978, and artistic director Bill English's amazing set design is a riot of groovy wallpaper and Danish modern furniture. Teenage girl Abigail, never seen, is throwing a party in a neighboring house while her mother attends the "adult" party next door. Hostess Eve (Susi Damilano) is determined that everyone have a good time, plied by alcohol and horrible 70s hors d'oeuvres. Eve believes every empty glass must always be topped off. The result is mayhem and biting social satire as Leigh casts a gelid eye at bourgeois life. The cast hums together like a black-comedy machine. Through July 6; tickets at www.sfplayhouse.org.
Here's word of an exciting Benjamin Britten centennial concert on June 4 that features the West Coast premiere of a remarkable work called Movements for a Clarinet Concerto. This is the second concert of the 2013 inaugural season of Curious Flights, a new San Francisco concert series dedicated to presenting new and rarely-performed works.
Curious Flights is a project created by British clarinetist Brenden Guy, who will perform as soloist for Movements for a Clarinet Concerto with an orchestra led by Marin Symphony and Sun Valley Symphony conductor Alasdair Neale. The concerto has a unique background. Britten sketched the entire first movement of the concerto, intended for Benny Goodman, during time spent in the U.S. Upon his leave, customs seized the manuscript for about a year, by which point Britten was busy writing other works, and it was soon forgotten. U.K. composer Colin Matthews orchestrated the sketch in the early 1990s before returning to it in 2007 to "complete" a representational concerto using Britten's sketches for other works written around the same time. The result is a representation of what Britten might have composed had he indeed finished working on the clarinet concerto.
Movements for a Clarinet Concerto will highlight a program of Britten's chamber works, a Britten Celebration on Tues., June 4, 8 p.m., at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, 50 Oak St., SF. All proceeds will be donated to an SF Conservatory of Music fund assisting international students studying music in the U.S. Tickets ($10-$15): www.brownpapertickets.com/event/367340.