Rock 'n' Roll at Huntington Theatre Company
Perhaps Tom Stoppard's Best Play Extended to Dec. 13
By: Mark Favermann - 11/13/2008
Sir Tom Stoppard
Jan and Esme (Maneol Felciano and Rene Augesen) in Conversation, 1990
Max Morrow (Jack Willis) in Prague with Jan
Rock 'N' Roll set at the Huntington Theatre. Jan's flat in Prague.
Jan in Prague (Manoel Felciano)
Rock 'n' Roll
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Carey Perloff; Cast: The Piper and Policeman, Drew Hirshfield, Esme (younger) and Alice, Summer Serafin, Jan, Manoel Felciano, Max, Jack Willis, Eleanor and Esme (older), Rene Augensen, Gillian, Deirdre and Magda, Bree Elrod, Interrogator and Nigel, Robert Parsons, Ferdinand, Jud Williford, Milan, Rod Gnapp, Lenka, Deilia MacDougall, Candida, Marcia Pizzo. Scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt; Costumes Alex Jaeger;Lighting, Robert Wierzel; Sound, Jake Rodriguez; Dramaturg, Michael Paller; Casting, Meryl Lind Shaw; Dialects and Speech, Deborah Sussel; Czech Consultant Draha Herman.
Through December 7 Extended to December 13
The Boston University Theatre/ Huntington Theatre Company
Approximate Run Time: 3 hours, including one intermission
First produced in 2006, Rock 'n' Roll spans the years from 1968 to 1990. It takes a double perspective: One, a view of Prague where a rock 'n' roll band comes to symbolize resistance to the Communist regime, and second of Cambridge, England where the verities of love and death shape lives of three generations in the family of a unapologetic Marxist philosopher, Max Morrow. The focus on Eastern Europe and the anti-communist nature of much of Tom Stoppard's work is underscored brilliantly by "Rock 'n' Roll."
This is a must-see production. It is easily one of the finest shows of the last few years in Boston. Tickets should be purchased as quickly as possible for fear of sell outs. The show has been extended until December 13 so don't miss this smash hit.
One of the best storytellers of our time, Sir Tom Stoppard, who was born in 1937, is a prize-winning (Tonys and Oscars) British writer and playwright. Among his most prominent plays are Travesties, The Coast of Utopia, Arcadia, Rosencrantz & Guilderstern Are Dead, and this play, Rock 'n' Roll. He co-wrote the screenplays for the wonderful films Brazil and Shakespeare in Love as well.
Interestingly, he was born Tom√°¬ö Straussler in the town of Zlin, Czechoslovakia, Stoppard's family fled to Singapore with other Jewish refugees on March 15, 1939, the day when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. In 1941, the family was evacuated to Darjeeling, India, to escape the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Here Stoppard was initially educated at English schools. His father was killed in a Japanese prison of war camp while serving in the British Army. His mother later married Kenneth Stoppard, a British army major who moved the family to England after the war and gave Tom his last name.
After leaving school early, Stoppard began his career as a reporter and second string reviewer. Eventually, he felt that he could be a playwright. His first play was optioned for the movies in the early 1960s. The rest is theatrical and cinematic history.
Though sometimes wordiness is a barrier to total enjoyment of his plays, e.g., Rosencrantz & Guilderstern Are Dead and The Coast of Utopia, the words in Rock 'N' Roll literally sing. Here, the prose is pure narrative nuanced by emotion, humanity and socio-political happenings. This play is playwriting at its best.
Stoppard takes a bit of his own life story, his childhood exile, to flesh out a major character in the play, Jan. Played with elegant ease and proper pitched stress by Manoel Felciano, Jan is a Czech graduate student studying at Cambridge University. The story is about his journey through notorious communist repression, to the Prague Spring, to freedom, to free expression, and ultimately, to true love. His developmental journey uses rock 'n' roll as a metaphor for free expression and final redemption. Music acts as a Greek Chorus and as timely lyrical snapshots throughout the story.
At Cambridge, Jan is mentored by crusty, pompous, bombastic, authoritative Professor, Max Morrow, who is played almost perfectly by Jack Willis. His stage presence is magnetic. Though, at times, he seems to chew on the scenery a bit, this roaring older lion character fills the stage. Like a great teacher, we must watch and listen to him even if we do not much like him. Yet, unheroically, Morrow is one of the last of the unreconstructed true believers, a Marxist who sees Communism as perfect while only its practitioners are flawed.
Another absolutely wonderful performance of two distinct but very strong characters is by Rene Augesen who portrays Eleanor in the first act and Esme in the second act. She is astounding in the texturing of the two women. She is almost unrecognizable as the same actress in the two strong roles. Her performance is subtle and yet layered as the sympathetic, dying, Eleanor and the sad, but hopeful, older Esme. Bravo.
In fact, all of the actors are quite good in this play. Each brings a distinctive voice to their characterizations. Of particular note are Summer Serafin as both the young free spirited Esme and the brilliant, more grounded Alice; Delia MacDougall as the emigre intellectual Lenka, and Jud Williford as the very human Czech dissident Ferdinand.
Music is another major character in the play as well. Songs by The Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, John Lennon, The Doors, and Bob Dylan are punctuation at the end and beginning of scenes. Apparently, like the character Jan, Stoppard loves rock and roll. The cool and hot vibrations are rhythmic connections to the times in which the scenes are set.
Several actors in Rock 'n' Roll are from the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco. This superb Huntington Theatre Company production is in association with American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) where it was produced previously.
As usual, at any Huntington Theatre production, stagecraft is of the highest level. The direction is simply brilliant by Carey Perloff. One scene flowed seamlessly to another. Actors are never awkward or unnatural in either position or performance. The sets are simple, evocative, and spare. Douglas W. Schmidt's creative approach is thoughtful and elegant. I particularly liked a graffiti wall with a portrait of John Lennon. The play on music and Lenin's name was not lost. The lighting is sensitively done by Robert Wierzel.
An interesting sidebar to this production is that a friend of mine actually saw this play performed in Prague in the Czech Republic. In Rock 'N' Roll, the character Jan is obsessed with the Czech rock group The Plastic People of the Underground. Considered to be the foremost representative of Prague's underground culture, this group's actual travails with the communist regime including censorship and imprisonment are involved with Jan's own political and personal problems throughout the play. This group still exists. In the Prague production and later in the San Francisco ACT production, The Plastic People of the Underground performed throughout the show.
Tom Stoppard makes one of his strongest artistic, social, and political statements with this play. The Huntington Theatre Company beautifully portrays this gifted playwright's uniquely personal connections and larger universal ideas and ideals. This is a terrific play to be savored like a fine wine. It may be only Rock 'n' Roll, but I loved it!