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Theatre Review (LA): Rock ‘N’ Roll by Tom Stoppard at the Open Fist

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The Open Fist Theatre in Los Angeles is known for doing challenging work, such as The Dead by James Joyce, Seven Santas by Jeff Goode, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, and now Rock and Roll by Tom Stoppard. The company tries to embrace works from a variety of cultures, believing that diverse opinions are what matters and that powerful work that challenges the company as well as the audience makes for meaningful theatre. It is quite a coup to get to do the Los Angeles premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll.

Like all Stoppard, the show is not easy to digest, because Stoppard can’t help but show off his immense intelligence and vast store of knowledge. Rock ‘N’ Roll however comes closer to revealing a bit of his heart than his other work.

The play has been described as “an electrifying collision between the romantic and the revolutionary.” It takes place in Cambridge, England as well as Prague and spans the time from 1968 through the 1990 Rolling Stones concert in Prague. Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia and has identified with the country’s fortune. It is not a bad idea to scan the walls of the lobby of the Open Fist, where they have posted a timeline with pictures of the political events in his country of birth.

The main character is Jan (Benjamin Burdick), a Czech university student whose mentor Max (Will Kepper) is a firm believer in old Marxist principals. Jan has escaped Czechoslovakia with his mother during the Nazi occupation, so was, himself, attracted to Marxist ideals. But like all good student of the 60s, and like Stoppard himself, Jan has become obsessed with rock and roll music as he tries to understand the contradictions he finds in both capitalism and communism.

Jan returns to his native country to track down his mother, bringing with him only his cherished records. But because he becomes known for his “radical” music he is branded as a dissident and is trapped there for 22 years. In the process he softens his own ideals in order to keep out of trouble, but in the process alienates his friends. Eventually it is his records that lead to his disillusionment and downfall.

He returns to England only to find Max clinging hopelessly to his Marxist ideals, and his old girlfriend, Max’s daughter, has turned hippie. What becomes evident is that it is love and not ideology that matters; that the heart triumphs over the intellect. That is quite a departure, or so it seems, by a playwright who is know for his intellectual rigor.

The play is well acted but drags on a bit too long, and without a familiarity with Czech history, it can be off-putting. Director Barbara Schofield does the best she can with the material but has not come up with a schema to clarify events beyond projections of the year the scene takes place in. Still Rock ‘N’ Roll is a fascinating and challenging play. It will run at the Open Fist through Dec. 18

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About Robert Machray