With a running time of three hours including intermission, Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, is as much of an endurance test as a Grateful Dead concert, albeit without the painfully late start and interminable set break.
Directed by A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff, Stoppard's characteristically funny and intelligent play is an exceedingly dense affair, even for him. It requires the audience to be steeped in the personalities and palace intrigues of Czechoslovakian politics between the years 1968 and 1990; to appreciate the creative genius of Syd Barrett, the pre-Dark Side of the Moon founder of Pink Floyd; to know their way around the finer points of communism, both as conceived by Karl Marx and ruthlessly manipulated by Joseph Stalin; and to revel in the nuances of translation and meaning to be found in the ancient poems of Sappho. Did I mention that Rock 'n' Roll is also a sentimental love story? Consider it mentioned.
It's not that the play's length and arcane subject matter is off-putting or exhausting. Far from it. The weaving together of so much political history, Greek poetry, and Stoppardian fiction -- with a terrific soundtrack that careens from scruffy Rolling Stones to saccharine Beach Boys, early Syd Barrett to late Pink Floyd, mournful Velvet Underground to exuberantly sonic Plastic People of the Universe -- is invigorating. After seeing the performance on opening night, I have been thinking about little else, and not just because I am obliged to type my meager observations into a computer. This is a play that stays with you, powerful despite its numerous faults.
Stoppard's fictional story begins in Cambridge in 1968. Real Russian tanks have just rolled through the streets of Prague, prompting a young Czech student named Jan (Manoel Felciano) to inform his Cambridge professor and mentor, an old-school Commie named Max (Jack Willis), that he is returning home. Max, who is defensive about the Red fist that has come out of the east to crush the Prague Spring, is furious with his protégé for failing to complete his studies.
Or, at least, that's what I think Max is angry about. Throughout the play, Max's actions often come off as irrational, as if this man who claims to have only a biological machine between his ears, rather than a mind, might lack either. Only later, when we realize that Max has lots of desires but possibly not a heart, do we surmise the cause of Max's seemingly random actions. I'm certain that I have not known as many Communist Cambridge professors as Stoppard has, but making Max a heartless blowhard who values the hive over the bees strikes me as an overwrought bit of stereotyping.
Equally suspicious is Stoppard's decision to kill off Max's wife, Eleanor (René Augesen), who you know won't make it to the second act the moment she reveals her breast cancer early in the first. A renowned authority on Sappho, her awestruck female students timidly creep into her home for one-on-one (purely Platonic) lessons. Eleanor struck me as a far more intelligent and clear-eyed creation than poor idealistic Max, so I felt somewhat cheated not to get her perspective on the play's events as they unfolded. Why do away with her? Keeping both her and Max alive would have made this long play even longer, but from where I sat, Stoppard got rid of the wrong character.
Max and Eleanor's daughter, Esme (played as a young girl by Summer Serafin), who opens the play writhing on a table while smoking a joint, would like to give her father's favorite pupil a parting gift -- her virginity. Jan is clearly infatuated with this hippie vision of sweet-sixteen. But despite his relative youth, Jan is an old-world gentleman. So, he plucks one of Esme's cherry LPs to add to his collection of Western auditory decadence and heads home.
Ostensibly he is going to Czechoslovakia to look in on his mom, but his real motives are not entirely clear. Even the interrogator (Anthony Fusco), who gives him a good Orwellian grilling at customs, can't understand why he wants to return to Czechoslovakia when all the other intellectuals in the country have chosen to flee. The answer is that Jan must suffer to give Stoppard's story its arc. As artificial as that may sound, at least the playwright does not have to make up what comes next, since he has just hurled this confused young man, whose sensibility is Eastern but whose musical tastes look to the West, into the real events of Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia.
When we meet Jan, he's a familiar, almost familial, guest at Max and Eleanor's bourgeois Cambridge home, where the hyper-educated dine outdoors on a brick patio amid trellises and greenery. Jan's flat in Prague is a far cry from that. His meagre journalist's salary affords him an apartment that has the messy ambience of a student's crash pad, only more run down. Sure, Jan dotes on his records and hi-fi (he is forever checking his precious collection of vinyl to make sure it is all in order and accounted for), but he cares so little for his furnishings that he repairs the broken foot of a beat-up couch with a stack of books. For Jan, literature is a cheaper commodity than furniture.
This business of what Jan really cares about, indeed, what any of the characters really care about, is, I think, a key to the play, more even than the question of whether we are just collections of atoms or ethereal beings possessing unquantifiable souls. Having left Esme, who he never got the chance to properly care about or for, Jan is now on autopilot -- a stranger in a strange land -- doing what he must to get along.
Out of a sense of self-preservation more than ideology, Jan wants to believe the state propaganda that everything is okay, but he also wants to listen to his music and be left alone. That, it turns out, is a more radical proposition than any of the causes that his friend Ferdinand (Jud Williford) would like for him to take up. Jan derides Ferdinand's endless protests as "moral exhibitionism." It's only when the police beat up fans of his favorite band, The Plastic People of the Universe, that Jan gets politically engaged enough to thrust a petition in Ferdinand's face. Jan idolizes the Plastics precisely because they stand for nothing. They are the real agents of change, he says, because they are safe from the desire for recognition. As for the kids who were beat up by the police, they deserve support because, unlike traditional dissidents, who hurl Molotov cocktails and words alike at their oppressors, they had not asked for the fight.
One of the payoffs of Rock 'n' Roll's length is that we get a chance to hang out with Jan and Ferdinand long enough to watch their relationship evolve. These men, Felciano and Williford convince us, are good friends, for all their differences. Augesen and Serafin also make the most of the play's deliberate pace. In the first act, Augesen plays Eleanor and Serafin plays her daughter, Esme. In the second act, Augesen takes over the role of the adult Esme while Serafin plays Esme's teenage daughter, Alice. Reading the program before the curtain went up, as It's Only Rock and Roll blared into the upper reaches of the Geary Theater, I wondered if these two could pull it off. But Serafin convinces us that she is two very different women -- Esme, a dreamer who is more interested in the mantra "make love not war" than her father's "the workers shall own the means of production," and Alice, whose possession of her grandparents' school-smarts gene has gotten her into Cambridge a full year early.
As for Augesen, she is a revelation. I loved her as Eleanor in the first act -- from her flashes of anger to the way she would regain her poise to the patience she showed her childish and naïve husband. But as the adult Esme, struggling to fit into a world filled with people, her daughter included, who will always be light years smarter than she could ever dream, her anxieties creep out quietly, revealing themselves in the littlest things. This is a wonderful, smart performance; I could not take my eyes off of her.
If there is one unforgivably sour note to this production it is the set, which takes its inspiration from a photograph of a view up the light well in a Prague apartment building. Like the building's walls in the photograph, the walls in the set rise away from us, upstage in forced perspective, so that windows and masonry flank either side of the stage, the ceiling above it, and the stage itself. The effect is rather like standing in an M.C. Escher etching, adding a layer of surrealism that is, I would suggest, entirely at odds with Stoppard's play. We expect playwrights to be indulgent enough to occasionally undermine their own work, but it makes us squirm when a theater company appears to take similar liberties in the name, presumably, of its need for self expression. Max and Eleanor would not have been pleased.
Rock 'n' Roll runs through October 18, 2008 at A.C.T. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.