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Where Shakespeare in his dotage wrote about the end of things—an aging magician clinging to power in The Tempest, unwise monarchs losing their fiefdoms in King Lear and A Winter’s Tale—Tom Stoppard has entered his 70s writing about rock ’n’ roll.
This is, I should admit, a false dichotomy. Mature playwrights often peer into the abyss, and while a preternaturally ripe Stoppard began his career by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ponder their own mortality in 1966 and has spent the intervening decades cranking out intellectual comedies with the energy of a schoolboy, he’s no exception. His Rock ’N’ Roll, mounted smartly at Studio Theatre, is as much about a political winding-down—the death of communism in Eastern Europe—as it is about the anarchic force of rock. And his translation of the French comedy Heroes, ideally cast at Metrostage, is about the second childhood of senescence. But the man’s writing is hardly on the wane.
These two plays are, at their core, about rebellion against forces of conformity. In Heroes, three French army veterans plot a breakout from their nursing home. In Rock ’N’ Roll, a Czech-born Ph.D. candidate and Velvet Underground fan is distraught after the communist regime crushes 1968’s “Prague Spring,” while his mentor, a Marxist prof safely ensconced in Britain, persists in believing in the Soviet ideal.
The Czech-born playwright asks us to empathize with the rock-crazed Cambridge grad student even as he gives the mentor the first (and often the last) word in most of the play’s arguments. Blithe, naive, album-collecting Jan (Stafford Clark-Price) has time on his side, while Max (Ted Van Griethysen), his curmudgeonly, if stubbornly idealistic prof, must make do with principle.
“I speak as one who’s kicked in the guts by nine-tenths of anything you can tell me about Soviet Russia,” he laments before Jan has time to bring up Stalin’s abuses. But Max stays loyal to the Party for the other tenth: “because they made the revolution, and no one else.”
Jan’s loyalty is to a more modern communism—the one espoused briefly in 1968 by Czech President Alexander Dubcek, who allowed both a measure of democracy and what the Party regarded as “socially negative music” by the likes of the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe—but Max has none of it. Dubcek is a “reform communist,” he snorts, “like a nun who gives blowjobs is a reform nun.” You don’t win arguments with this guy.
Unless, that is, you’re his wife. Classical-lit prof Eleanor (Lisa Harrow) has lost a breast to cancer and is worried about losing her husband to the coeds who come to her for instruction in Sappho. Confronting Max over the lovemaking that’s disappeared along with her breast, she’s implacable in the way of someone who knows this could be her last chance to be heard.
“I am not my body,” she keens. “My body is nothing without me. Who is the me who is still in one piece?”
While her question leaves Max momentarily speechless—the moment is wrenching at Studio—her loss will dim the fire in his eyes more than he can imagine.
Jan, meanwhile, experiences an intriguingly parallel loss after returning to Czechoslovakia from Cambridge. The whole world seems ablaze with revolution—street barricades in Paris, campus riots in the United States—but in Prague after the crackdown, Jan finds his friends fearful, his own prospects dimmed, his record collection cause for official alarm.
As Stoppard meshes these stories, bouncing around in time and doubling characters (Harrow plays both sharp-witted Eleanor and her scatterbrained grown daughter Esme, while Katie Henney plays the young Esme in Act One and Esme’s daughter Alice in Act Two), Joy Zinoman’s spare, in-the-round production keeps pace with sure-footed grace as the script flits from Cambridge to Prague, from complaints about the jackboot of Soviet oppression to the only slightly lighter foot of capitalism.
Designer Russell Metheny shifts scenes by sliding furniture silently into place on a floor lighted from below by Michael Giannitti, who provides rock-concert and academic-dinner-party ambience as required. Erik Trester throws projections on panels that look like album covers to keep us in the moment as the years pass. And the performers negotiate a script that blends Eastern European political history with rock shoutouts and tales of the rise and fall of Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, whose story punctuates the evening with a sort of drug-infused mythological frisson.
And as the dissidents and dissonance combine into a heady, trippy theatrical brew, the theatrical basics are well taken care of by a generally sharp cast. Oh, perhaps Clark-Price overdoes the open-mouthed naif bit in turning Jan into a rock-happy Candide, but the others are stylish and subtle—particularly Shakespeare Theater veterans Van Griethuysen and Harrow, who bring a classical precision to characters steeped in the classics.