Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux.
Here’s the thing about Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll: like most Stoppard plays, it is a pastiche of colliding concepts; unlike many Stoppard plays, it all boils down to something very personal. It is a play that opens with a musician (later identified as former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett) softly playing a song on a pipe (a la the Greek god Pan, who is referenced a lot) to a young girl and proceeds to include everything from British and Czech politics of the mid-to-late 20th Century to the poetry of Sappho, all locked within a story of two strong and interesting personalities and their relationship.
In its new production at Chicago’s The Artistic Home, director Kathy Scambiatterra and scenic designer Kevin Hagan physically separate the British and Czech sequences, locating them at either end of a very long set, which was useful especially in Act One, which is full of choppy, brief scenes in one place or another. It does, however, make it rather difficult for audience members sitting in a single row along each side to see some of the action. (I was located at one end: action close to me tended to have me looking at people’s backs and action of the far side was often blocked by the head of the man next to me.)
This play follows Jan, a Czech doctoral student matriculating in Cambridge just before the Prague Spring who is drawn to what appeared to be a significant new era of reform and liberality in Czechoslovakia. Jan (an apparent stand-in for an alternative existence of the playwright, who opted not to return to his native country), decides, much to his mentor’s chagrin, to abandon his studies and go home to help this new form of socialism flourish; thus he gets caught up in the crackdown that began only a few months later with an invasion by the Soviet Union designed to halt all reforms.
Jan (Julian Hester) is not a political animal at first. His joy is the freedom not of politics but of rock and roll, and his record collection is the only thing he holds as valuable. (The motif of rock and roll as free speech continues throughout the play, which is punctuated frequently by bursts of music from artists of the eras being shown.) It is only through repeated attempts by his friend Ferdinand (Raphael Diaz) and years of repression by the new Czech government that Jan finally draws a political line. Until then, though, he is harassed as a lover of “decadent” music, represented in Czechoslovakia by an underground and outlawed group called the Plastic People of the Universe.
In England, Jan’s mentor Max (HB Ward) is a stalwart Communist who likes to say that he was born during the October Revolution. He refuses to believe or acknowledge the failures of that philosophy, which Jan and others try to get him to see was flawed from its inception, since the notion of equality for everyone was immediately undermined by the rise of a Party ruling class that never relinquished control. Max is also having a personal crisis: his wife Eleanor (Kristin Collins), a professor of Greek studies at Cambridge who specializes in Sappho’s poetry (Sappho’s celebration of sex being a literary equivalent of the music Jan so loves) is dying of cancer.
Along the way, Stoppard introduces way too many characters to keep track of, and all of those switching scenes (some of which are very fast) in Act One make things very choppy. Scambiatterra can’t do much about it; it’s how the play is written. And it does settle down considerably in Act Two, which is set around the time of the Velvet Revolution when the Soviet Union collapsed and Czechoslovakia was once again free.
It’s freedom that forms the spine of this play: communism as freedom from the tyrannies of capitalism; Sappho’s poetry and the freedom of human sexuality; the constant struggle of the Czechs for their freedom played out against an England that, during the Thatcher era, consistently voted to stifle the freedoms of the working class; rock and roll as a hedonistic celebration of free spirit; Syd Barrett’s freedom to destroy himself with drugs; the freedom of Czech citizens to continually rebuild a wall in tribute to John Lennon even though the police destroyed it all the time and arrested people. What Stoppard seems to be saying is that freedom is difficult to achieve but ultimately is only as good as what we do with it.
Scambiatterra gets some excellent performances from her ensemble. In addition to the leads, Kayla Adams is wonderful both as Max’s pot-addled daughter Esme and, later, as her daughter Alice. Brookelyn Hebert is very strong as Lenka, a student of Eleanor’s who becomes a lover of Max’s. But ultimately, as I said, there are way too many smaller characters that don’t have any room to grow.
This is a play with high ideals and grand concepts. It is a credit to The Artistic Home to take it on, and the timing, as our freedoms in this country are systematically eroded, is excellent. Its ending is well-earned, and a lot of it is thought-provoking. If you’re in the mood for something complex, political and personal, it’s worth checking out.
Rock’n’Roll is now playing at The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand, Chicago until Nov 18. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.