Rock ‘n Roll by Tom Stoppard, a Park Square Theatre Production at Park Square Theatre

Peter Moore and Dan Hopman - Photo by Petronella Ystma

I’ve always been a fan of Tom Stoppard plays, but I chose not to direct one with my college students once because I thought they’d all need a degree in its subject matter to understand what they were talking about. That’s the challenge with Stoppard. How do you move an audience – most with a relatively superficial understanding of the subject matter – to care about the characters and their dilemmas?

In an ambitious move, Park Square Theatre has tackled the relatively recent play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, in which Stoppard threads a political landscape with accompanying personal trials, at times desperately poignant and elsewhere suppressed, much like the protagonist’s dreams of a free Czechoslovakia.

The protagonist, Jan (Dan Hopman) is a Czech student and protégé of Max (Peter Moore), a professor at Cambridge, England and a stalwart Communist. Jan returns to Prague in 1968 just after the Soviet tanks roll in, he says because his mother is there and he wants to do his part to save socialism. What he cares about at least as much is his collection of rock records, which he believes is carrying the message that will overthrow tyranny and totalitarianism. In fact, it’s his connection to the Czech rock band, Plastic People of the Universe, which ultimately gets him into real trouble and leads to a stint in a Soviet-run prison.

Max, meanwhile, clings to his ideal of Communism, even in the face of its corrupted practices in Jan’s homeland, while enduring the derision of many. But he and his wife and daughter are safely ensconced in the intellectual world of Cambridge. This would not be gripping enough, believe me, for most of the audience to care, except that his wife is fighting ferociously to maintain a whole sense of self in the midst of recurring cancer. Their daughter has left for a commune, a flower child enamored of rock ‘n’ roll and its message, to be sure, but also faithful to its more admirable notions.

Surprisingly (given that it’s Stoppard) the political ideology comes off more like a device to get at the heart of a much more intimate – even sentimental – story. (If you know the play or the playwright and don’t agree, just replay the ending over and over in your head.) In the Park Square performance, at least, this is the case. I actually wanted, and expected, to feel the horror of Soviet repression, and I didn’t. Rather than frightening, that part was detached and bland.

Connections were loose and therefore lacking, to a degree, the tension required of drama. For example, the Syd Barrett character (Pink Floyd’s singer and, in this play, a rock rendition of Pan) and his influence on the lovers of rock and what it represented was clear enough, but lacked the emotional punch of the relationships among characters we came to know in the course of the play. In short, aside from the historical reality, we didn’t care. It was just a device interestingly woven in among references to Pan in Sappho’s poetry. Ok, I get that, but the only reason for it to be there was because Stoppard had made the intellectual connection. Dramatically, it was missing too many dots to forge a whole.
The production also lost its flow by having to be compartmentalized in well-defined physical spaces: all those rich, free-ranging conversations in Jan’s Prague apartment confined to a smallish wagon set-piece. Why? The actors were forced to either sit or stand behind the couch or by the door. There was no use of center stage as center, really, or any other stage area, other than “Pan’s” perch above it all, which was the only part of the set that functioned conceptually.

This group of actors was so good that they were clearly capable of making us believe in a dining room, a garden, a street in Prague – anywhere, without being required to balance the moment on the edge of a light pool. I think it messed with timing intermittently, as well, with not enough of a sense of the whole uniting Cambridge and Prague to feel the powerful cadence in this slice of history.
I’m also ambivalent about the use of Czech accents. Mostly they were managed impressively, but giving voice to Stoppard’s very British sensibilities, in terms of language, in an accent so distinctive and unusual for most of us, seemed studied and drew attention away from the emotional content of the moment. I wonder how it might play if the first word or phrase of a sentence was delivered in Czech, as a way to open new dialogue, then the rest delivered without accent?

Still, Hopman, in particular, created a thoroughly likeable and engaging character. Though involved to an extent in his country’s political swirl, he never stopped believing, as they say, in the music. Moore delivered a convincing curmudgeon and a nicely varied ensemble* provided a thoroughly believable demographic for the subject matter.

But it was Jennifer Maren, as Max’s wife, Eleanor, in Act I and the older Esme in Act II, who was the real star of the show in my book. With an exquisite balance between the heady classicism of her academic life and the mounting evidence that cancer would claim her body, she demands that her husband validate the soul of their relationship in Act I’s most powerful moment. By Act II, we are so vested in this character, that her “reincarnation” as her adult daughter is hugely satisfying – the perfect vehicle, in fact, to gather the play’s various themes into one conclusion. Hopman’s “Jan,” by that time, became a foil for her. She was the embodiment, really, of rock ‘n’ roll, not him, and a far better representation of what the music meant for that generation.

For most, the music wasn’t political, or at least it didn’t start that way. It only became political when it was repressed by politicians. We all wanted rock ‘n’ roll to mean something, just like Jan and Esme. The bands themselves mostly just wanted to play their music. The whole idea of intellectualizing rock music, which was, generally, more typically emotional, hedonistic and carnal, takes a bit of cheek, when you think about it.
What I suggest is this: unless you have at least some familiarity with classical poetry, either lived through or studied Czechoslovakia’s modern history, and/or have read this play, get there early enough to read the program notes. All of them. It also helps if you can sing along with the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. But if you call yourself a serious theater-goer, then go to see this play. Park Square is pushing us with a lot of substance and we, too, should have enough guts to take it on.

Rock ‘n’ Roll runs through February 7.

The rest of the cast:

*Esme (younger), Alice                      – Jane Froiland

The Piper, Policeman, Stephen           – Sasha Andreev

Gillian, Magda                                    – Bethany Ford

Interrogator, Nigel                              – Garry Geiken

Ferdinand                                            – Brent Doyle

Milan, Wiater                                      – Chris Carlson

Lenka                                                  – Carolyn Pool

Candida                                              – Virginia Burke

Pupil                                                    – Anna Sundberg

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