Over the years, Tom Stoppard has found a home away from home at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
The British playwright's celebrated canon has been showcased season after season. From early works such as "Travesties" and "Night and Day" to recent hits such as "Invention of Love" and "Rock 'n' Roll," the troupe has honed its skill at the linguistic virtuosity, philosophical intricacy and existential yearning that are Stoppard's hallmarks. The company has wholeheartedly embraced his body of work, from the obscure ("Indian Ink") to the crowd pleasers ("The Real Thing").
Now ACT is reviving his 1993 masterpiece, "Arcadia," a glittering comedy of ideas that spins between past and present, chaos and disorder, science and the uncertainty of knowledge. Directed by Carey Perloff, a longtime collaborator with Stoppard, "Arcadia," runs through June 9. The last time ACT waltzed through the elegant riddles of "Arcadia" was 1995.
"Of all the plays I've done in my 20 years at ACT, 'Arcadia' was at the top of the list, so it seemed the right moment to revisit it," says Perloff. "We are a much more mature theater than we were 20 years ago and really ready to take on a play of such infinite beauty and complexity."
One of the greatest living playwrights, Stoppard, now 75, may be one of his own most enduringly fascinating creations. Hailed as a genius since "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" debuted in 1966, the dapper playwright always gives off a slightly mischievous air. Half Oxford don, half rock star, he's the sort of playwright whose monumental intellect contrasts with his chatty and down-to-earth air. Always more interested in discussing the state of the world than in dwelling on his own process, Stoppard can be a tough customer to pin down.
As he famously quipped: "My whole life is waiting for the questions to which I have prepared answers."
Eccentricity is part of his allure. He only writes with fountain pens on unlined paper. The stage is in his bones, but he also dabbles in movies, TV and radio, and he won an Oscar for his screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, but he has become the quintessential Englishman. He's a perfectionist who tweaks plays decades after they're published, but he's also a team player who thrives on the push and pull of the collaboration.
"As you know, writing can be such a solitary profession," he says over the phone from his home in London. "I very much enjoy being in the rehearsal room; I like working with the actors and the directors and the designers. I try to put down as little stage direction as possible, because there is no need to be trapped by that."
While many iconic playwrights try to stay above the rough and tumble of the rehearsal studio, Stoppard has always seen himself as entertainer and craftsman as much as artist. He likes to roll his sleeves up and get the play on its feet.
"I'm a storyteller," he puts it. "I'm not at all defensive of my work; I never intend it to be fixed in stone. I am always willing to take another look at it."
Still, directors are often intimidated by Stoppard's style of narrative. They get bogged down in the cerebral nature of the text and miss its beating heart. But the playwright has faith in Perloff's vision of this scintillating piece.
"She's a theater animal with an aesthetic that's visceral, intellectual and emotional," he says. "It's quite marvelous to have someone out there who reads you the way you want to be read."
Perloff can't wait to bring that history to "Arcadia," a richly appointed romp through history, romance and the poetry of science that is widely regarded as Stoppard's masterwork.
"The science in the play is much better known now. Chaos theory was just beginning to be discussed in 1993," notes Perloff. "Our appetite for complexity and uncertainty in science has only grown in recent years, so the metaphor of the play is even more trenchant."
Stoppard, for his part, won't speculate on where "Arcadia" stands in the canon. Indeed, while the playwright is flattered by the praise heaped upon him, he does not let it interfere with his craft. That sense of serenity has been hard won.
"I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity," he once put it.
At this point in his life, he writes for himself. He divides his time between radio plays and adaptations and sinking his teeth into a new play, about which he will divulge nothing. He is active but not driven.
"I manage to keep busy and fill the blank spots in my diary," he says modestly, "but it now takes me three days to do what I once could do in a single morning."
His legacy to the art form assured, Stoppard now takes a whimsical approach to it all.
"If I were to retire now, it would be no big thing," he says, coyly. "In England, I now qualify for a free bus pass! But I like to keep my hat in the ring."
Written by Tom Stoppard
Through: June 9
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$95 (subject to change), 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org