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Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia": Then and Now

Carey Perloff's past and present productions of "Arcadia" collide at A.C.T.

Jack Cutmore-Scott and Rebekah Brockman star in Carey Perloff's new "Arcadia" at ACT.

San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre concludes its celebration of Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s 20th season with her new production of Tom Stoppard’s mind-bending, century-hopping romance, Arcadia.

We wanted to entwine past with present as well, but we didn't go quite as far as Stoppard does. Instead we headed back 18 years, to Perloff's first production of Arcadia, by having Daniel Cantor, who played 19th century ladies man Septimus Hodge in 1995, compare notes with Jack Cutmore-Scott, who will play the role in the new production opening tonight:

When did you first read the play? What was your reaction?
Cantor (Then): I didn't read the play until I knew I'd be doing the part, because it had only been out a few years at that point, but I knew it was already a classic. It's so filled with ideas about science and intellectual pursuits that if you're not careful, you can miss the passionate interrelationships, the heat under the play. Carey said those very words to us in the 90s: "There has to be heat."
Cutmore-Scott (Now): I understudied on the Broadway production years ago, and it was pretty overwhelming. There are so many layers and so much psychology, but in the end it is about relationships, just intellectual and emotional relationships. Those are the crux of the play, even to the point of spanning centuries.

So much of the play is about timelessness, but even so things do change. What's something over the past 18 years that might have changed how we look at Arcadia?

Cutmore-Scott (Now): Because the modern scenes focus so much on the past, they don't become dated. Some of the music choices are updated—when we have a party going on in the final act—but in the end, I think it all still rings pretty true. Not much has changed.
Cantor (Then): One thing that hadn't quite happened in 1995 was the ubiquity of information. Part of the play is about people pursuing information that's difficult to access, but now research is all so much easier, and I wonder how that seems. Also, it was pre-9/11, so in a way it was a more innocent time. But I do feel like a great play transcends its time, and I have a hunch this one holds up.

Septimus is a complicated part. Who did you study when crafting your performance?
Cutmore-Scott (Now): I talked to Billy Crudup [who played Septimus in the first Broadway production in 1995] quite a lot. The thing about Septimus is, I have a pretty easy time accessing him, in terms of where he comes from. With my upbringing, I feel quite comfortable getting into his head, especially when you're dealing with intellectual subject matter that is really beyond him.
Cantor (Then): I was just working with what was on the page. There's nothing in the text that says where Septimus comes from, so I tried to invent a history for him. I imagine he had a stern and patriarchal oldest brother, and another brother after that who was a screw-up, and then sisters all the way down to Septimus, the youngest. So he was in an environment where he was doted over by women but was under the thumb of men, and that comes through in all his relationships in the play.

Chaos theory is important in the story. What's something that happened with the production that nobody could have predicted?
Cutmore-Scott (Now): We all talked about the science and the poetry of the show, and it's very hard for an actor to imagine that an audience will get all of this. The most surprising thing was realizing how much comes across to people by us doing so little. A friend of a cast-mate came to rehearsal, and he figured something out about the play that in our wildest dreams we never thought anyone would get, but I can't give away any spoilers about it here.
Cantor (Then): Nobody guessed just how popular it would be. There were people lined up around the block like it was a Grateful Dead show, desperate to get in. We added a ninth show a week on Sundays, and that was a completely nonsubscriber audience—people who chose to come just to this show. San Francisco is a Stoppard kind of town.

What advice would you give to anyone playing this role in the future?
Cantor (Then): Septimus speaks in long, complicated sentences, and they have to move forward, they can't stop. In the early rehearsals I got tripped up, and Carey had to tell me, "Relax, you can do this," because it's easy to get so distracted by what you're saying that you lose track of the substance of the scene.
Cutmore-Scott (Now): The play has to do with the relentlessness of time and the fact that, while there are second chances, you should grab a chance while you can because there's no point in wasting the time we have. It's a very important takeaway from this show: We have what we have, and while we have it we should make the most of it.

Arcadia runs through June 9 at ACT. Go to act-sf.org for tickets and information.

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