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Rock 'n' Roll

Rock 'n' Roll
Benjamin Burdick and Jeremy Guskin
Rock 'n' Roll is about rock music as rebellion and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And, as with other Stoppard plays, it's also about other, seemingly unrelated subjects—in this case, the poetry of Sappho, the difference between the brain and the mind, and the conflict between philosophical ideals and the reality on the ground. (There's also a good bit of plain old dramatic character interaction thrown in there, too.) The problem with the Los Angeles premiere production at the Open Fist is that the interconnectedness of it all fails to materialize.

Benjamin Burdick does a reasonable job as the play's protagonist, Jan, a Czech graduate student at Cambridge who returns to Prague in 1968, just after the Soviet tanks rolled in. Jan initially believes the Soviet occupation isn't so bad—after all, they let him keep his rock 'n' roll records—but soon becomes disillusioned. Burdick nicely conveys Jan's transformation from a hippie grad student into a repressed kitchen worker and, ultimately, into someone willing to take a stand for what he believes in. Nonetheless, there's still something about Burdick's Jan that makes you think that, for him, it really is just all about the music.

Will Kepper plays Max, the Cambridge professor who took Jan under his wing. Max is an unabashed Marxist who clings to his vision of a socialist paradise long after everyone around him has concluded that Soviet oppression will never bring about that ideal. Jan's other political foil in the play is Ferdinand, his dissident friend in Prague, played by Jeremy Guskin. Ferdinand immediately rejects the Soviet regime and wants Jan to join him in signing petitions against it.

A word about accents: Jan has an Eastern European accent; Max has a British one. (Max's accent sometimes also has Eastern European undertones—although it isn't clear if Max is meant to have emigrated to England or if Kepper is simply picking up a bit of Burdick's accent from time to time.) However, when Jan is alone with Ferdinand (or another Czech-speaker) the accents drop and they simply speak normally. In part because of this, the difference between the Jan/Max arguments and the Jan/Ferdinand arguments is night and day. When Jan and Max fight, Kepper's lines often disappear into his accent; his pompous defense of the rightness of Marxist ideals simply gets lost. (It doesn't help at all that, during their first scene, background sounds of crickets chirping and water running nearly drown out their soft speech.) When Jan and Ferdinand argue, however, the play actually crackles—both actors, devoid of accents, make immediate connections with their opposing points of view, and the heat of their debate is felt by the audience.

The accent problems continue into the play's second act, which follows Max's family back in Cambridge. (It is not made clear why, when everyone is Czech, the accents drop, but when everyone is English, they do not.) Max's daughter, played by Laetitia Leon, makes about half her speeches work—she seems trapped by her accent for the rest of them. And Maxie Solters, as Max's granddaughter, has even more problems—her entire character is defined by quickly tearing through her lines, with no attempt at emotion, using an accent snootier than that of either of her parents. Beth Robbins, as Max's wife, has no difficulties with her accent—her problem comes from an inability to cry on cue. When she's required to actually break down, she rolls on the floor with painful, heartrending sobs, but her dry eyes keep us from genuinely believing in the moment.

Director Barbara Schofield, whose production of Arcadia at the Sierra Madre Playhouse was noteworthy for the attempt but not the execution, seems to fall into a similar trap at Open Fist—the play is simply beyond the grasp of the production. Connections among characters which should be hinted at aren't present; connections between themes which should create "Aha!" moments aren't conveyed. There's no way they can be, when many of the actors are still struggling with putting their lines across intelligibly and connecting with their own characters.

Rock 'n' Roll runs at the Open Fist Theatre through December 18, 2010. For tickets and information, see www.openfist.org.

The Open Fist Theatre Company presents Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Barbara Schofield. Produced by Monica Martin & Martha Demson. Scenic Design James Spencer and Kis Knekt; Costume Design A Jeffrey Schoenberg; Technical Director Tom Burruss; Lighting Design Jason Mullen; Sound Design Peter Carlstedt; Graphics & Projection Design Liam Carl Design; Dialect Coach Deborah Ross Sullivan; Hair/Wigs Diane Martinous; Props Christian Lebano, Bruce Dickenson, Ina Russell; Stage Manager Kim Mowrey; Dramaturg Jim Boyle; House Manager Daniel May; Board Operators Dustin Eastman and Charlotte Chanler.

Cast:
The Piper - John Dimitri
Esme - Laetitia Leon
Jan - Benjamin Burdick
Max - Will Kepper
Eleanor - Beth Robbins
Gillian/Magda - Jordana Berliner
Interrogator/Milan - Daniel Escobar
Ferdinand - Jeremy Guskin
Policeman - Andrew Dodson
Lenka - Amanda Weier
Nigel - Matt Roe
Alice - Maxie Solters
Stephen - John Dimitri
Candida - Rona Nix
Pupil - Angelita Torres
Waiter - Daniel May
Understudy - Conor Lane
Jan Understudy - Dustin Eastman


Photo: Tom Burruss


- Sharon Perlmutter






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