Review: Rogue's riveting "Arcadia" among company's best productions

2014-01-16T00:00:00Z Review: Rogue's riveting "Arcadia" among company's best productionsBy Kathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

“So,” you ask yourself, “why would I want to see a play with mathematics, science and academic research at its center? Sounds about as dry as the Rillito.”

Here’s why:

The Rogue Theatre’s riveting production of Tom Stoppard’s “Aracadia.”

Sure, it has those potentially dry subjects, but this production makes them accessible and exciting. It also has sex, discovery, wonder.

The Rogue Theatre has impressed a number of times in its 10-year history.

But never quite like this.

Its “Arcadia,” which opened Sunday, is simply exhilarating.

This is not an easy play to stage — it jumps between two centuries, demands you pay attention, and gives equal attention to all things carnal and intellectual.

But this piece looked almost effortless. Cynthia Meier directed the complex play with an intent to clarify without simplifying, and her cast embraced the concepts and the emotions with deep-rooted sensibility.

The story, in essence, is a mystery. Scenes jump between an English estate in 1809 and present day. In the earlier century, the young teen, Thomasina, is brilliant and inquisitive, and her tutor, Septimus, guides her intellectual curiosity while trying to answer her questions about such subjects as carnal knowledge. Much happens at this estate — affairs, poetry, a visit from Lord Byron, music.

The contemporary folks are looking back and trying to figure out what happened more than 200 years ago — was Byron there and did he kill a man? Was an important mathematical equation solved by this teen? What do all these newly discovered notes written in the earlier century mean?

Of course, we, the audience, know what really happened because we have the advantage of seeing both centuries.

So, naturally (and because this is Stoppard), there’s plenty of humor. But more than anything, there is plenty of passion — for math, science, research, bodies.

This production is thoroughly engaging. Wildly entertaining. Profoundly provocative.

And well-acted.

Ryan Parker Knox squeezed into the skin of the tutor Septimus and became this 19th-century tutor with an intellectual sharpness, a roving eye, and a razor-sharp wit. Knox has been in several Rogue productions, but this is the first chance he has been given to take flight with a character. He did not disappoint.

Matt Bowdren was his 21st century counterpart, the scientist Valentine. Bowdren, who rarely has a misstep on stage, was sublime as he cloaked the character in an intensity and detachment that didn’t quite cover the river of passion underneath.

The entire cast served this play with honesty, commitment and talent. Gabriella De Brequet showed Thomasina’s brilliance and curiosity without ever losing sight of the fact that she is a teen with burning questions and budding hormones. Joseph McGrath’s 21st century academic determined to uncover previously-unknown scandals about Lord Byron was blustery and arrogant and quite funny. We never doubted Patty Gallagher as a fellow academic with big smarts, big wit, and a nice wide swath of cynicism. Holly Griffith as the young 21st century girl who follows around the blustery academic with goo-goo eyes was perfect. Thomasina’s mother was a formidable force in Kathryn Kellner Brown’s very capable hands, and Lee Rayment’s take on an 18th century poet who had little talent, an unfaithful wife and an over-sized ego was a treat.

Even those with smaller roles — David Morden, David Greenwood and Dustin Rieffer — never forgot the greater picture and gave strong performances.

This reviewer has seen this play several times, but it has never revealed itself to be as funny or as clear or as provocative.

When you ask yourself why you would want to see The Rogue’s “Arcadia,” here’s why:

It is what is thrilling and funny and satisfying about theater. You won’t forget it; you won’t want to.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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