Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

Rock ‘N’ Roll

By Tom Stoppard

Rock 'n' Roll
Rock 'N' Roll

Directed by Charles Newell

At the Goodman Theatre

Bewildering rock music references obscures Stoppard’s themes

Set in Cambridge, England and Prague, Czechoslovakia from 1968- 1990, Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s 2006 drama utilizes a funky assortment of rock music from The Velvet Underground to The Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd among other famous rock groups. I must confess that I was not a fan of such groups during that time frame. (I was 24 years old in 1968). My taste went for The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and The Fifth Dimension and folk groups.

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll

Therefore, the selection of music Stoppard choose was bewildering and distracted from the play’s focus. I simply couldn’t make the connection from rock music to the political dissent in Cambridge and Czechoslovakia. This play supposes as true the intersection of rock music and politics. I just don’t see that rock music was a dominant influence on politics in either place. I seem to remember that folk music from Boy Dylan. Peter, Paul & Mary, Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie were much more influential to the peace, civil rights and political movement than hard rock. The only folks I knew who loved Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones were druggies. It may have been different with Stoppard’s experience in England? For me, his rock selections of rock tunes were more irritating than significant.

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll

It was a stretch for me to relate the key characters. Max, (Stephen Yoakam) the true-blue communist Cambridge professor was a blow-hard whose life revolved around his Marxist beliefs despite that world’s deconstruction. His wife Eleanor (terrific moving performance from Mary Beth Fisher) is a classics professor suffering from breast cancer. When a grad student from Czechoslovakia, Jan (excellent work from the talented Timothy Edward Kane) comes under the influence of Max and all things British, Max believes he has found another true Marist believer. Jan, Max and other key characters have as strong an affinity for rock music as they do for politics and philosophy. Jan actually seems to care more for his rock albums than the 1968 Russian suppression of his homeland.

Since I didn’t fully understand why Jan returned to help his country in 1968 and then got involved with a dissent rock group (The Plastic People of the Universe) which led to his imprisonment, the motivation was skewered. Why didn’t Jan try to escape instead of spending years working as a baker? As in most Stoppard’s plays, the dialogue is dense with ideas, especially the emergence of democratic movements in the Eastern Bloc. Contrast that with Max’s staunch unrepentant defense of Communism even in the face of bloody suppression of human rights. Too much time is spent here with Max’s extended family over 22 years (’68-’90).

I’d rather have seen more about the struggles inside Czechoslovakia and The Plastic People rock band. Stoppard does use rock music as a metaphor for the youthful yearnings for freedom of expression. What makes Rock ‘N’ Roll a passable show was the powerful nuanced work from Timothy Edward Kane as Jan and the truthful moving work from Mary Beth Fisher.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

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, through June 7, 2009


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