Rock ’n’ Roll
Tom Stoppard plays are often rightly tagged as cerebral, not that there’s anything wrong with that. His unique mix of densely poetic and thought-provoking themes and subjects like fractal geometry and pre-revolution Russian intellectuals all make for a pretty heady, dramatic stew. With his latest work Rock ’n’ Roll, now at the Huntington Theatre, Stoppard has crafted not only a deeply emotional play, but a play about emotions. It’s about emotions and the power of human beings to overcome all kinds of adversity, such as the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Oh, and it also deals with a band called the Plastic People of the Universe.
"Rock ’n’ Roll" follows Czech student Jan (Manoel Felciano) who leaves the University of Cambridge to return to his homeland just as the Soviets take power. Jan leaves behind his mentor, die-hard Communist ideologue and Cambridge professor, Max, and his flower-child daughter Esme. Jan returns home toting a host of vinyl - The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Fugs, and more. In short, his "luggage consisted entirely of socially negative music." While Jan’s friends like Ferdinand (Jud Williford), a dissident who hangs around with playwrights and future Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, protests, and sign petitions against the increasingly hard-line government, Jan curls up with the records. He is drawn to the anarchic music of an outlawed Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe, who, in trying to be indifferent to and outside of any political struggle, is the most subversive symbol of all.
Stoppard meticulously yet luxuriously delves through the abundance of plot and character development that stretch over two decades and flit between Prague and Cambridge. What seems unfocused and unimportant in initial scenes becomes touching and richly satisfying as you come to know the characters and see them grow over time, making the nearly three-hour running time worth every minute.
Stoppard layers his work with delicious intellectual arguments, a hallmark of his style, including philosophical sparring between Max and Jan over Communism - made dictatorial by the Soviets and "reformed" by the pre-occupation Czechs ("Like a nun who gives blow jobs is a reformed nun?" roars Max). Then there is the debate between Jan and Ferdinand over whether Havel’s dissidents are really just part of the establishment and whether or not the "Plastics" are worthy of more attention than all the petitions, delving into question of whether politics shapes culture or vice versa.
In the end though, the politics and rock and roll are only diversions, albeit incredibly entertaining diversions that will have you devouring program notes on the Prague Spring visiting Huntington’s website to hear to the play’s soundtrack. Ultimately, the real battle in "Rock ’n’ Roll" is of physical vs. emotional, of the brain, a living/dying body part, and the mind, that intangible human aspect that appreciates poetry, crafts arguments, and creates rockin’ music and love.
This core battle is beautifully illustrated in an explosively emotional monologue from Eleanor, Max’s cancer-ridden, Sappho-scholar wife. In a bravura turn as Eleanor, Rene Augesen plays the character as a fiercely intelligent woman with a heart-breaking fragility. Additional kudos go to Felciano as Jan and Jack Willis as Max, both of whom deliver nuanced performances that believably span decades while also ably handling the script’s complex dialogue and rich comedy.
Director Carey Perloff clearly delineates space and time shifts, employing zippy pacing and swirling "you are here" projections. "Rock ’n’ Roll" has an epic sweep to it, and scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt has provided a grand stage on which to play. Forced-perspective gray walls loom on all sides, as if the audience is looking up at the spot of sky left by the looming walls of a hulking Soviet-style housing project, while Jan’s Prague apartment and Max’s university house create more intimate spaces.
Despite Stoppard’s pretense of presenting both sides of the brain/mind debate, it’s clear on which side of the argument the playwright stands. Emotion wins in a landslide, with love, not political machinations, saving Jan from prison. The Huntington cast offers such believable emotions that you’ll forgive the rushed pairing of lovers and instead bask in final scene’s joyous jolt of lights and music.
Francisco, at the Boston University Theatre in Boston through December 7. Go to www.huntingtontheatre.org for tickets and information,. November 20 performance is Out & About Club, meet other GLBT theatergoers at the post-show reception and discussion.