A Second Look

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goodman-rocknroll.jpgI’m a huge Tom Stoppard fan but I wasn’t particularly thrilled when I saw the New York transfer of his London hit, Rock’n'Roll, in early 2008.  As I said in my blog entry about it last year, most of the time I felt like I was taking three Ph.d level classes at the same time instead of being drawn into an emotionally thrilling theatrical piece – it was a play full of dense, cerebral ideas, references, and metaphors, with lots of talk, debate, discourse, and hectoring.  Of course saying that a Stoppard play was full of dense, cerebral ideas and lots of talk was like saying the Chicago river turns green on St. Patrick’s Day, duh!  But Stoppard’s other plays are extremely intelligent too, and they hit the audience squarely in the heart and in the gut.  It was a shame that Rock’n'Roll didn’t – its themes around freedom and patriotism were emotionally resonant, red-blooded ones that could not, and should not, stay intellectualized.  I found the Goodman Theatre production, under the direction of Court Theatre Artistic Director Charles Newell, to be warmer and more emotionally accessible than the Broadway production, but it’s still tough to sit through.  The woman sitting beside me at the performance I was at obviously got lost after the first couple of scenes, and spent the rest of the first act fidgeting, shifting uneasily in her chair, repeatedly unzipping and zipping her purse, unwrapping candy, putting lipstick on, rubbing cream on her hands… I thought she was going to break into a Tai-Chi exercise routine while she was at it!  She, and the rest of her four person group, thankfully left at intermission.  But I couldn’t say I really blamed them for doing so. 

Rock’n'Roll is about Jan, a Czech student at Oxford, who decides to go home to Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union occupied the country in 1968.  His struggle (and it’s quite a struggle, particularly because he grew up and went to school in England) of living through authoritarian rule is told through the backdrop of the Soviet-controlled Czech government’s crackdown on the rock group the Plastic People of the Universe throughout the years.  It’s something that I could personally relate to pretty well, having grown up in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship of the 1980s.  Surveillance, loss of privacy, the inability to express opinions freely, lack of dissent, an oppressive, threatening social milieu – these are things I’m familiar with and have very strong opinions on.  Rock’n'Roll tackles all of them, but at a distance, cocooned in smart, sometimes show-offy, dialogue that zigzags from Marxism to ideological disillusionment to musical history to Sappho’s love poems.  People who have lived under an authoritarian regime will never be able to articulate these themes without passion and fiery, heart-wrenching emotion, and that’s probably the heart of the matter – Stoppard has never lived in the repressive, freedom-less environment that he seeks to portray in this play.  Some critics have said that Jan is meta-autobiographical:  he is the person that Stoppard envisioned himself to have become if he wasn’t able to leave Czechoslovakia at a young age and immigrate to the UK to become an “Englishman.”  But envisioning and hypothesizing is vastly different from experiencing.

As it is with most of Newell’s productions, the pacing is tight, the design well-thought out (I like the use of a rock concert-type scaffold with lights and speakers as the dominant design element, although it seems to have received mixed reviews), the musical scoring evocative but not distracting (the New York production had boatloads of musical interludes which were interesting the first three times they came on, but were irritatingly repetitive aftewards for this non-rock music lover), the acting flawless, with the excellent Timothy Patrick Kane as a more thoughtful, less excitable Jan (I thought Rufus Sewell’s New York performance was very good, but needed a good dose of Ritalin and a caffeine-free diet to calm him down) and Mary Beth Fisher’s superbly-delineated, warmly-etched, emotionally-powerful dual mother-daughter roles, leading the pack.  But ultimately it is about the writing.  For folks who haven’t seen a Stoppard play, and have not yet been captivated by his play-writing dazzle and calisthenics, Rock’n'Roll may not be the place to start.

Rock’n'Roll is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, until June 7.

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2 Responses to “A Second Look”

  1. Esther Says:

    I saw “Rock ‘n’ Roll” on Broadway too and I had the same reaction you did. I thought it was kind of tedious, with a lot of speechmaking. It just didn’t engage me at all. Good for you for giving it another chance, though. There was a production closer to me, in Boston, last fall. But I just couldn’t sit through it again.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Esther, thanks for the comment. “Rock’n'Roll” is difficulty to sit through with very minimal payoff. Which is unfortunate, because I think Stoppard is a genius.

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