By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Charles Newell
At the Goodman Theatre
Dissonance and Dissidents
Like most Tom Stoppard plays, Rock ‘N’ Roll recounts an engaging story that invites the audience to contemplate complex subject matter. In the case of this, his latest work, the tale is one of love, family, and friendship and the subject is the individual’s relationship to economic structures and political states. Few playwrights can create characters with enough depth or craft a story engaging enough to pull off such a feat, but Stoppard is a living icon of intellectual theatre and Rock ‘N’ Roll is a masterful script. His observations of the human condition are keen and his thinking is clear. On top of that the show weaves in an assortment of some of the greatest Rock anthems of all time.
Set against the backdrop of actual events in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1990, the show shifts between Cambridge, England, where the Czech protagonist Jan (Timothy Edward Kane) almost completes his Ph.D. and Prague, where this same decidedly apolitical former grad student gets caught up in the political turmoil of his time. In Cambridge Jan’s mentor and professor Max (Stephen Yoakam) holds to his ardent communist beliefs even as he tries to reconcile them to their real-world implementation and to family life with his terminally-ill classics professor wife Eleanor (Mary Beth Fisher) and their hippy daughter Esme (Mattie Hawkinson). In Prague, Jan’s passion is rock music, not politics; but western music is regarded as a decadent, bourgeois pursuit and any expression of individual freedom has political consequences. The Prague sections are based on actual events related to the band The Plastic People of the Universe. If you have never heard of “The Plastics”, or if your sense of Czech history during these years isn’t wonderful, don’t worry because dramaturg John Boller provides amazing program notes that will quickly get you up to speed.
Charles Newell directs what is overall a quite lively production. Just when you think that the action might be slowing a bit, he nearly blasts you out of your seat with one of the rock anthems. I heard a few people grumble about the force of the audio and lights in some of these moments, but I personally loved it, especially during Jan’s defiant dancing romp to the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Ray Nardelli’s and Joshua Horvath’s brilliant steel-trussed set, so reminiscent of a concert stage at that particular moment, shifts hydraulically from Cambridge manor home to dilapidated Prague flat as pieces fly in from above and glide out through the wings. The Czech accents caused me to have to sit up and really listen a few times and I don’t think Kane quite nails the age and ageing of Jan, but on the whole this is a slick production. Fisher, especially, delivers standout supporting performances as Eleanor and as the now-adult Esme in the later years of the story. The same is true with Kareem Bandealy who plays Jan’s best friend back in Prague, the opposition organizer Ferdinand.
All-in-all, The Goodman Theatre’s Rock ‘N’ Roll is a production that satisfies a many levels. It is a political musing that teases the brain, but ultimately stands up for the dignity of the individual over any system of organization. It tempts one to ponder, but mostly entertains…and you might exit the theatre – as I did – humming a tune.
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, tickets $25 – 475, Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm. Sundays at 2 pm, matinees on Thursdays & Saturdays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission.