My husband and I had tickets to see “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard at A.C.T. in San Francisco directed by A.C.T.’s artistic director, Carey Perloff. My husband doesn’t like the play, largely due to its length. I saw the play in a production by Center Theatre Group while I was in college, and enjoyed it. (I also didn’t find it to be overly long.) Prior to leaving, I endured taunts about dragging him to a four-hour long play, I responded that it was only two-and-a-half hours long. Todays production clocked in at four hours and twenty minutes. I had to eat crow before my husband. So, I say again, “Darn you Carey Perloff!”
So what happened? Well part-way through the second scene and actor left the stage and the curtain came down and the house lights came up. After several minutes the usher came down and there was a technical problem, and to please remain in our seats. A while later, an announcement was made that a cast member had been taken ill. A while later we were told the show would resume in twenty minutes. About an hour after the curtain was prematurely rung down, it went back up, with a new actor on stage.
At the end of my rant, I will specifically state details of my opinion of the production, which we both quite enjoyed. What comes first is my issue with business as usual in theatre. On professional contracts, understudies are not usually required to rehearse with the cast, and often do not start learning the show until opening night. This is a cost saving rule negotiated by the producers. Additionally, understudies very rarely get rehearsal with the rest of the company. Instead the stage manager rehearses them separate from the cast on mornings when the stage managers are not otherwise engaged. Lastly, understudies are not at the theatre once the curtain goes up. (In fact, if my memory serves on the LORT contract, they are not even required to be at the theatre unless called.) This is the way it is. Today was a clear example of why it is a bad idea.
If the understudy was at the theatre, it should have taken no more than thirty minutes to get into costume and make up, and get on stage. With an hour delay, it is clear our understudy had to get to the theatre before any getting ready could be done.
Our understudy, a very hardworking Robert Parsons did not know the show. Inauspiciously, he had to call line several times in his first scene. Thereafter, he carried pages of the script around with him looking when he needed to. This did not completely eliminate the need of calling line but it dramatically reduced it. Parsons also did not know his blocking. Other cast members where giving him hints about where to go, but he still was out of his light for several key moments.
Prior to today, I said repeatedly that I have never been disappointed in an understudy’s performance. That is still somewhat true, Parsons is a fine actor and with adequate rehearsal would have been outstanding. I am disappointed in the realities of theatre. At a professional theatre, I expect the show to go on. I have seen understudies on tour, on Broadway, and in Los Angeles. I’d have to look to see if this is totally true, but in my three years as a subscriber to Center Theatre Group, I never saw a show without an understudy appearing on the night we had tickets. And in all of the cases before today, if I hadn’t known there was an understudy, I wouldn’t have known it was an understudy. That was not what was experienced at A.C.T. today. Audiences deserve better than today. The playwright deserves better than today. I would say the director deserves better than today, but as artistic director of the theatre, as well as the director Perloff was at least partially responsible for these realities. The union contract does not bar producers from adequately preparing understudies, it just gives producers the option to risk it. My guess is that usually it is not a problem. Today, A.C.T. earned a lot of ill-will from an audience.
An unprepared understudy going on hurts the production. The pacing slowed down. Ignoring the time we waited for the understudy to arrive at the theatre, get into costume, and the part of the scene they repeated, the play still ran longer than its two hour and forty five minute running time that the house staff informed us of as we had our tickets scanned.
The ushers informed us we could trade our tickets for another day. I live 210 miles from the theatre, that was not an option for us. The family in front of us had come from Sacramento to see the show using a bus or train. They had allowed time for the show, a quick dinner and then back to catch their transportation home. They asked an usher if they would make it. He advised they try to skip dinner and try find a cab to meet their transportation. They left during the curtain call. I usually consider that an appallingly rude act ,but in this case I understood. I hope they made it home tonight.
The play ran so long ,that the parking was far more expensive than the woman in front of us at the parking garage had budgeted. She was shocked, and scrambled in her purse for more money. Perloff was coming down the stairs in the parking structure as we were going up. I am not sure what she was saying to her audience, but I doubt it was enough to get immediate forgiveness for what happened. As pleased as the audience was with the show, and as loudly as they applauded for Parsons, the audience was greatly annoyed at the extra hour-long intermission in the middle of the first act.
In one sense an actor taking ill is an unforeseen event, and in another sense it is not. What is unforeseen is which actor will be taken ill and when. That an actor will be taken ill during a run, is something that can be prepared for, that is why understudies exist.
What went a long way to redeem the whole debacle for me today was that Perloff put together a damn fine show. Douglas Schmidt’s set was clean, simple and beautiful. Robert Wierzel’s tight beautiful lighting told the audience at every moment when we were, which is especially important on Gus’s final entrance. With the exception of the fact that the understudies costume did not seem to fit correctly, Alex Jaeger’s costume design was great, especially the period scenes.
Jack Cutmore-Scott had an understated lunacy about his performance of Septimus Hodge that could turn quickly to a heart-rending introspection. Rebeckah Brockman as Thomasina expertly rode the line between innocent naïvety and ageless wisdom. Nicholas Pelczar, Anthony Fusco and Nick Gabriel were fun, funny and passionate foils to Hodge’s plans. Gretchen Egolf as Hannah was less “showy” than other actresses I’ve seen in the role, and her slow burning anger was a joy to watch.
Carey Perloff’s direction really seemed to find the fun, beauty and nuance in Stoppard’s script. Her production was more understated than others I have seen, and refreshingly so. The period scenes sparkled like New Year’s Eve’s champaign, the modern scenes a deep undercurrents like a fine wine. The final scene didn’t play up the pathos of death common in other productions I have seen, instead concentrating on the simple beauty of two people finding each other for a brief moment dancing. My husband wondered if the audience remembered that Thomasina would die within an hour of the curtain falling at the end of the play. I think they remember. I think focussing on the death is siding with the neo-classists and the scientists who think that cold truth is the most important thing, instead of siding with the romantics who will take peace and beauty regardless of the cost. This debate between my husband and I echos the debates had between the characters of the play, which means ultimately Perloff clearly, and cleverly, succeeded in bring Stoppard’s philosophical argument to this audience.
Now, if only it wasn’t four hours and twenty minutes long, start to finish.