Rock ‘N’ Roll

Source: Windy City Times / / By Jonathan Abarbanel /

Playwright: Tom Stoppard
At: The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave., Tickets: 866-811-4111;; $34. Runs through: Nov. 18

Windy City Times
Julian Hester and Raphael Diaz in Rock N Roll. Photo by Joe Mazza-Brave Lux

This is a well-acted, intelligent production of a sprawling play with a tangle of themes and ideas intersecting symbolically if not factually: freedom vs. repression, love vs. Eros, theory vs. reality, rock music vs. politics, the collapse of European Communism and the rise of Thatcherism. Perhaps only Tom Stoppard could cram Sappho, Vaclav Havel, the Beach Boys, Karl Marx and the Plastic People of the Universe ( PPU ) in a single play. The PPU was an underground opposition rock band in Czechoslovakia following Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968, and survived until Communism’s fall in 1989.

Rock ‘N’ Roll is set in England and Iron Curtain-era Czechoslovakia, 1968-1990. I’m old enough to know all the history it recounts, all the artists and politicians it cites and the dialectics it references, and I’ve seen the play before. Still, it defies easy summation or comprehension even with this strong production.

It centers on Max ( HB Ward ) and Jan ( Julian Hester ), a spiritual father-and-son who divide over politics. Max, a university professor and Communist Party member, supports Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Jan, his star grad student, is a non-observant Czech Jew ( as is Stoppard ) whose family escaped the Nazis. Jan returns to Prague during the liberal reforms of Czech Communist leader Alexander Dubcek, only to become a dissenter when the Soviet Union crushes the reforms.

Max’s muse is Karl Marx, while Jan’s is Western rock from the Stones and Dead to the Beach Boys and Velvet Underground. What unites Max and Jan spiritually is the purity of their visions and inability to compromise. Max twists logic to justify the Soviet history of repression, while Jan martyrs himself in Prague when he might be more effective elsewhere. Max is more pitiable as his personal life and politics spiral downward. His wife, Eleanor ( Kristin Collins ), succumbs to cancer as Communism stresses and collapses, crises which parallel each other in Max’s inability to cope. Jan, meanwhile, is marginalized. He’s attached to the Czech liberation movement but never seems important to it. Ultimately, long-interrupted love is revived and seems more important at the end than the political heart of the play. Is this Stoppard’s dialectic, that one must be politically free before one can love?

Director Kathy Scambiatterra’s vigorous, intimate production ( 45 seats ) makes effective use of lighting ( Cat Wilson ), music, wigs and costumes ( Zachary Wagner ) to mark the passage of time. It’s almost scary how pertinent Rock ‘N’ Roll still is, observing how all political systems manipulate truth, Capitalism as much as Communism. One also sees there isn’t much difference between Communist repression back then, and the repressions of right-wing nationalist dictators today … especially with a U.S. president who wants to be one of them.