Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Rock 'n' Roll
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of The Lieutenant of Inishmore and preview of The Addams Family a New Musical

Timothy Edward Kane, Mary Beth Fisher
There's a school of thought that any work of art ought to be able to stand on its own—ought to be able to speak to its audience without benefit of any supplemental material or advance preparation. An opposing case can be made for art as part of a broader learning experience, supplemented by readings, lectures and the like. Those who agree with the latter will be better prepared to enjoy Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll. As always with Stoppard, it's full of ideas that deserve time to be pondered, but full appreciation of this play also requires a more than cursory understanding of the history of European Communism, of Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1990, of rock 'n' roll and particularly of the British rock band Pink Floyd. I saw the play cold, but appreciated it more after fully reading the program notes and press kit materials after the performance.

Rock 'n' Roll concerns Max (Stephen Yoakam), a Cambridge University professor who is an avowed Communist, and Jan (Timothy Edward Kane), his Czech student who returns to his homeland just after the Soviet invasion of that country in August 1968. Over the next two decades, as Czechoslovakia falls under more oppressive rule until the fall of European Communism in 1990, the two must come to terms with the failure of the system they had so passionately espoused. In Prague, Jan's disillusionment increases as he is faced with the oppression of artists, particularly rock music and the suppression of a Czech band called Plastic People of the Universe (a real band, as I learned from my post-performance reading). Also figuring in the play is Syd Barrett, the real-life original front man for rock band Pink Floyd who, suffering from mental illness, left the group and went on to a life of semi-reclusion in Cambridge. In the play's first scene, the young Barrett is seen by Max's daughter Esmé, who believes he may be the Greek god of music Pan. In later years, as Barrett becomes increasingly detached, Esmé's daughter Alice becomes his protector of sorts.

Stoppard has many theses in this play, and he has said the play is primarily about time—"the disinterested ongoingness of everything, the unconditional mutability that makes every life poignant." It was in act two, which concerns itself with loss—of the characters' youth, of innocence, of firm faith in their ideals—that Rock 'n' Roll began to work for me. The first act seemed talky and irritatingly constructed of a series of two-person dialogues in which Stoppard mostly has the characters tell us what's happened rather than show us. Apart from the stunning rock-stage-like set designed by John Culbert and the playing of classic rock songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys, there's not a lot of stagecraft going on. Further, the men—Jan, Max and Jan's friend Ferdinand (Kareem Bandealy)—seem mostly defined by their political beliefs, and there seems to be little opportunity for the actors and director Charles Newell to take them anywhere surprising.

The women—Max's wife Eleanor, Esmé, Alice and Jan's old flame Lenka—are more driven by emotion, and hence more interesting throughout. The actors playing these women are fascinating, beginning with Mary Beth Fisher—whose performance as Eleanor in act one and the older Esmé in act two makes this production by the Goodman a must. Fisher displays Eleanor's rage and despair as she experiences the gradual loss of her body and life to breast cancer, and fearing the loss of her husband's affection to Lenka (a sultry Amy J. Carle, who succeeded Carla Gugino in the Goodman's Desire Under the Elms earlier this season). Fisher's exhortation to Lenka, "don't shag my husband until after I'm dead," is a chilling moment. Mattie Hawkinson is a delightfully free-spirited Esmé in act one—enchanted by Barrett/Pan ("The Piper") and attracted to Jan. In act two, Fisher plays an older and sadder Esmé—a divorced single mother far from her carefree days in a 1960s hippie commune. Hawkinson's Alice is a far more serious young woman than her mother had been at that age, engaged to a similarly thoughtful young man (played by Greg Matthew Anderson, who symbolically is also cast as The Piper).

It's in these final scenes that Stoppard's characters grab our hearts and attentions, regardless of our knowledge of Czech or rock history. A dinner party which involves all of the major characters satisfyingly wraps up their stories and shows the changes that are inevitable to us all. With the possible exception of Mick Jagger.

Rock 'n' Roll will be performed through June 7, 2009 in the Goodman's Albert Theater, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60601. Tickets may be purchased online at, at the box office or by phone at 312-443-3800.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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