Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'N' Roll' A Multi-Layered Masterpiece

Photo: Shall we dance? Esme (Rene Augesen) and Jan (Manoel Felciano) get close in front of Prague's Lennon Wall in Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'N' Roll.'
Kevin Berne/Courtesy
Shall we dance? Esme (Rene Augesen) and Jan (Manoel Felciano) get close in front of Prague's Lennon Wall in Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'N' Roll.'

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Rocketing to the top of the playwright food chain in 1968 with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," the name Tom Stoppard has become synonymous with brilliance. Arguably one of the finest living playwrights, Stoppard made his name tweaking history and playing with reality. "Rock 'N' Roll," premiering on the West Coast at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, is a deeply personal play very unlike "Rosencrantz," vast in scope and meaning. Idealizing rock as the reflection of the human urge for personal freedom, the play juggles parallel dramas in several scopes over several decades.

"Rock 'N' Roll" takes place during the span of Czechoslovakia's resistance to the Communist occupation, from the Prague Spring in 1968 to the Velvet Revolution in 1990. Using his signature master device, Stoppard fictionalizes history, setting his characters amidst the historical weight and conflict. Jan (played by Manoel Felciano), the hero inspired by Stoppard himself, is studying in Cambridge in 1968 under Marxist scholar and Socialist Party member Max (Jack Willis) at the beginning of the play. Jan returns to Czechoslovakia and, still reeling from his incredible experiences in England, dives into anti-communist networks and devotes himself to spreading the ideals of individual freedom and the right to self-expression, via both the traditional charters and underground papers of dissent and the distilled freedom that is rock 'n' roll.

The stage is cleverly designed, modeled after Agata Jablonska's photograph "Perfectly Blue," depicting a blue sky inside a ring of bleak apartments. Set pieces slide into prominence from the sides and back, and the setting flashes onto the dark back wall. This becomes invaluable, as often years pass between scenes, and the audience is left trying to shift quickly from the oft-used 24-hour time frame into the incomprehensible 22-year frame. Eventually the audience's mental transmission catches and things being to make sense. By the time intermission ends, the 10 or so years that passed in the 15 minutes seem short.

Although, unlike "Rosencrantz," this play isn't solely focused on being unbelievably thought-provoking, Stoppard's mysterious settings include an expected amount of mind-bending discourse. When Max debates with his hippie student Lenka (Delia MacDougall) about whether or not the consciousness is a product of physical chemical processes or a facet of a soul, only to be forced to reconcile his scientific views with his cancer-stricken wife's desperate pleas that her mind is whole despite her decaying body, chills snake down the audience's collective spine.

This play, though rewarding, is definitely "advanced." Being written as closely to Stoppard's heart as it is, little time is wasted on exposition. A substantial knowledge of both rock and Czech history, specifically inside the 30-year stretch from 1960-1990, is essential. The program offers a reasonable summary. Among those idolized are Syd Barret, legendary Pink Floyd member, who appears onstage incarnated as the god Pan (or is Pan him?), as well as The Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech rock band who play a major role in the play as a catalyst of the development of the youth resistance to Communism and are idealized as a band that sought not fame but rather the freedom to play.

An epic and immense play, it skillfully weaves together individuals and philosophy and history. If you care about politics, history, or rock, or the bizarre ways these things connect, "Rock 'N' Roll" delivers, in abundance.

Brush up on your Czech history with Daniel at [email protected]

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