In 1970, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron declared that, “the revolution will not be televised.” Playwright Tom Stoppard reminds us, however, that just because the revolution might not be televised, that doesn’t negate the need for a groovy soundtrack as tanks roll in, bullets whiz, and dissidents get beaten senseless into hopelessness, submission, and enemy collaboration. The final and fatal assault in Stoppard’s play comes when those that fought the hardest transmogrify into plain ol’ political progressives, settling for the serenity of a gentler and kinder body politic that they once put their love and lives at stake for.
The year is 1968 and Professor Max Morrow (Stephen Yoakam), is a loyalist to the Communism ideal, yet resides in a decidedly un-Communist abode in Cambridge, England, where he tutors students in the ways of classical philosophy and Socialist order. His wife Eleanor (Mary Beth Fisher) is also an academic and shares Max’s passion to open their home to further tutoring students, all while battling the chronic effects of breast cancer. Max’s pupil and protégé, Jan (Timothy Edward Kane), wants only to lose himself in the rock music that fills up the milk crates on his apartment floor, including the music of Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident Czech rock band. Max teaches and preaches to Jan why they all must remain true to the Communist cause, ignoring the Czech government, as it turns menacing and violent against protesters. In turn, Max ignores Eleanor’s desperate need for her husband’s erotic validation, which is now possessed by her student Lenka (Amy J. Carle). Eleanor also loses her sixteen-year-old daughter Esme (Mattie Hawkinson) to the embrace of London hippie culture and her barely hidden sexual desire for Jan.
Unable to contain his boredom of the socialist ideal as academic argument, Jan returns to Prague to get up close and personal with his love of all things rock ‘n’ roll. He positions himself a disciple of the Plastic People, who have become an enemy of the state for their refusal to discontinue playing music not sanctioned by the government, which has banned all Western-influenced commodities. August 1968, and Soviet tanks roll through Prague. Czech dissidents and idealistic college students valiantly but unsuccessfully fight back; the Plastic People go further underground and Jan recommits himself as a disciple to rock ‘n’ roll, following the Plastic People, and purchasing the music of the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd.
Jan builds his rock ‘n’ roll monument even as government agents stand sentry outside his rundown Prague flat until the damn breaks. By the mid-‘70s the government, losing patience with those ideologues who challenge them, order the destruction of all things anti-government, including Jan’s precious record collection, an act that culminates with his interrogation, beating, and imprisonment. Jan stays behind bars until Max, lonely via widowhood, speaks with the higher-ups during a return visit to Prague, and arranges his release.
The years pass. Glasnost arrives. The Berlin Wall falls. The ‘90s bring a new name, government, and political philosophy to the Czech people, while Max’s heart breaks in double time to the fall of Communism in the East and the rise of political Conservatism in his adopted West. Max is now an old man, still professing in Cambridge, taking up British citizenship and living with the now-divorced daughter, Esme. His former son-in-law Nigel has gone to the Czech Republic to document the rise and fall of old and new, and meets a dejected and disillusioned Jan, using him as a “guide”. When Nigel confirms that he and Esme are no longer married, Jan makes the journey to Cambridge to visit Max and thank him for his kindness at arranging his release from prison.
Esme greets her old crush Jan as if she’s sixteen again, her spirit and sexuality renewed. About to lose her daughter Alice to university, and with her father becoming more embittered by romantic regret both human and political, Esme wants more than the occasional sighting of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett cycling through Cambridge to quench her desire. She plans a dinner party to include Lenka, Nigel, and Nigel’s new wife Candida (Susie McMonagle). The dinner table passes around shared histories and the evening ends with regrets, reshaping of lives, and the absolution that love never dies… and neither will rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock ‘N’ Roll makes its Chicago debut after critical and commercial success on Broadway and London’s West End. A revolution may or may not be televised, but Stoppard does a most excellent job of writing the revolution as a powerful presence on stage. Director Charles Newell shapes the music to deftly ebb and flow with the characters’ emotional rise and fall, failures and triumphs, and all the actors live up to their places on stage, with Mary Beth Fisher literally consuming the theater as Eleanor and the adult Esme, absorbing the moisture from the stage rafters to give her characters their very life’s blood and dimension. So convincing and scene-chewing was Ms. Fischer’s presence, it was not until the end when the actors took their requisite bows that I realized only one actress played two decidedly different generations.
Rock ‘N’ Roll is a force of cultural nature, and a lyrical reminder that no matter where we stand, with a revolt before us, there’s a soundtrack for it, and we pick the selections from an ethereal jukebox.
Runs through June 7th