Reviewed by Judy Richter
There are some parallels between playwright Tom Stoppard and the central character of his "Rock 'n' Roll," being given its West Coast premiere by American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco in association with Huntington Theatre Company of Boston. Both were born in Czechoslovakia. Both fled their homeland with their parents to avoid Nazi persecution, and both wound up in England. Stoppard stayed in England, while his central character decides to return as a young man.
Jan (Manoel Felciano), the central character of "Rock 'n' Roll," returns to Prague in 1968, the year that the Soviet Union sent in tanks and troops to offset the "Prague Spring" of liberalization in the Soviet republic earlier that year. Jan, an avid rock fan, seems content just to enjoy his music while working for a newspaper and resists efforts by his friend Ferdinand (Jud Williford) to join up in dissident causes. As time goes on, however, both suffer under the repressive regime.
Back in Cambridge, Jan's mentor, Max (Jack Willis), a Marxist professor, and his cancer-stricken wife, Eleanor (René Augesen), a Sappho scholar, have their own trials with Eleanor's declining health and their free-spirited, 16-year-old daughter, Esme (Summer Serafin). The action switches between Prague and the terrace of Max's Cambridge home until 1990, when Jan returns for a brief visit. By then, the Soviets have agreed to withdraw, opening a new era in Czechoslovakia. Eleanor has died, Max is aging, and Esme (now played by Augesen) is the divorced mother of a spirited teenager, Alice (now played by Serafin).
The play is peppered with political arguing and philosophizing, along with numerous references to current Czech events and rock groups. One of them is Plastic People of the Universe, a group that came to symbolize the efforts of musicians to be free to play their own brand of music while facing increasing persecution from the authorities. (The group is performing in San Francisco in October.) Much of the discussion is heavy going, and it's not always easy to figure out where some of the secondary characters fit in. The first act is especially slow, causing several audience members to leave at intermission. At least eight seats near me had been vacated as Act 2 began. Act 2 is more cohesive and interesting, but not quite enough to forge a solid connection with the characters.
As she has done with so many other ACT productions of Stoppard's plays, artistic director Carey Perloff directs. She has chosen a strong cast and elicits solid performances from everyone. Augesen is especially noteworthy as the pale, ailing Eleanor, her movements slow and pained as she tries to ration her limited energy. Besides those already mentioned, the cast includes Nicholas Pelczar, Natalie Hegg, Anthony Fusco, James Carpenter, Delia MacDougall and Marcia Pizzo.
Douglas W. Schmidt's intriguing set looks like a gutted building laid on its side with a sky-like projection screen upstage. The Prague and Cambridge sets slide in from opposite sides of the stage. Lighting is by Robert Wierzel, while Alex Jaeger's costumes and Jake Rodriguez's rock-driven sound reflect the changing times.
Like so many Stoppard plays, this one is clever and intellectual as well as sometimes humorous. Patrons would do well to arrive early and spend some time perusing the informative articles in the program to help shed some light on the plot along with the political, philosophical and musical references.