Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Donna Feore
Starring Kenneth Welsh, Fiona Reid and Shaun Smyth
Through October 24th

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Although Mathew Jocelyn is the new artistic and general director elect at The Canadian Stage Company, the 2009-2010 season is the last one programmed by Marty Bragg, Mr. Jocelyn's predecessor. And Mr. Bragg should be given top marks for choosing to open the season with this intellectually and dramatically compelling chronology of events that portrays the counter-cultural rebellion in the West and the East from 1968 to 1990.

Through the eyes of Jan (Shaun Smyth), the ex-pat Czech and the historical through-line character of the play (who parallels some aspects of Mr. Stoppard's own life) we relive the passionate debates of the period that condemned war, racism and capitalism while embarking on a wild search for alternatives filtered through the rose colored, hyperopic lens of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. In the end Jan's philosophy is neither utopian nor scientific but it certainly is manifested in a captivating and sympathetic performance by Shaun Smyth.

The play proceeds in a lockstep chronology that alternates between Prague and Cambridge. Kenneth Welsh plays Max, a life long member of the Communist Party in the U.K. who runs through the whole litany of scale tipping by weighing the moral and political depravity of the Western capitalist countries while trying desperately to defend the abject disappointments of the Eastern socialist block.

The casting is perfect in that Welsh brings real gravitas to the role by way of his impressive resume in film, television and theatre. His riveting stage presence compels the audience to listen to the argument in favor of communism -- no small task.

Fiona Reid plays his wife, Eleanor, a woman who struggles with breast cancer and a nascent feminist consciousness in the first act and then does a double reverse as her own daughter (Esme) 20 years later in the second act. Not quite a hat trick, but very impressive and Welsh's equal in every respect.

The construction of the play is a bit problematic in that it is advanced mainly by a series of Shavian parle de deux that really do not make full use of the investment in actor power that the cast encompasses. Stoppard rarely brings more than two or three characters (friends, professional colleagues, police agents, etc) together at one time and only once does he take a chance on a full table of people at a dinner party. I was actually surprised to be reminded at the curtain call that there are 11 actors in the show.

This is unfortunate because director Donna Feore is just the person who could effectively manipulate crowds, group discussions, demonstrators, police raids, etc. in scenes portraying rebellion as well as repression. But the playwright doesn't really give her much opportunity in this regard.

Still, Tom Stoppard remains a fine playwright who doesn't hesitate to take on the huge themes that may darken the world but brighten the theatre. His delicate touch allows us to see the realpolitik as well as the really personal. That is a gift that very few of his contemporaries possess.

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