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Tuesday, 16 November 2010 23:00

Tom Stoppard Czechs in at the History Museum

Written by Steve Callahan
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Tom Stoppard Czechs in at the History Museum

Tom Stoppard is famous for plays aglow with his keen and well-nourished intellectual curiosity. In his 2006 play, Rock 'n' Roll, Stoppard focuses that intellect on the political and social upheavals that rocked his native country, Czechoslovakia, in the decades between the '60's and the '90's as communism faltered, reaffirmed itself, then finally fell.

It's a kind of alternate biography for Stoppard. It explores what might have happened if, instead of staying in England, he had returned home after the "Prague Spring" of '68 was crushed by the Soviet invasion. The central characters are Max, a passionately unregenerate Marxist professor at Cambridge and Jan, one of his doctoral students. Jan is a professed socialist, but seems far more seriously dedicated to his rock 'n' roll collection than to anything political. He returns home after Dubcek's fall and shares in the turmoil and repression that were rife there for years to come.

The confused and confusing plot flickers back and forth between Cambridge and Prague. Even for those of us who lived through this time and had adult interest in the news from Czechoslovakia Stoppard's myriad references to various political figures and events there are a bit hard to follow.

Zealous debates about the contrasting virtues of Marxism and Democracy are interspersed with curiously passionate analyses of the poems of Sappho. The god Pan lifts his head and tootles his syrinx a time or two in the form of a mystically remembered Syd Barrett (of Pink Floyd fame). A thoroughly maudlin treatment of terminal breast cancer sinks finally to the bathos of soap opera. Throughout, the music of rock 'n' roll is presented as the epitome—even the goal—of western freedom.

Jerry Vogel plays Max, the Marxist. Vogel is one of the very best of St. Louis' professional actors, and he once again makes his role rich, deep and believable. A flawless performance. The ubiquitous Charlie Barron is strong as Jan (really the central character). Barron is convincing in both Jan's young, rock-steeped persona and in his more reserved and thoughtful middle-age. In the course of the evening we see him first with blond, shoulder-length hair, then with the close-cropped hair of a man just released from prison. And lastly, he looks very fine indeed with the hair of a mature modern man.

Emily Baker is outstanding as Max's later-life lover. She is at ease in her glamour, and can elicit oceans of potential seduction with the most gently rocking knee. Kevin Beyer, always reliably excellent, gives his brief roles his usual careful attention to detail.

Carrie Hegdahl plays both Eleanor, the cancer-stricken wife, and, in Act II, Eleanor's grown daughter, Alice. In the former role Ms. Hegdahl allows herself to become seriously overwrought, but she seems much more at home in the latter, where she is quite convincing indeed. The scene between her and her daughter (charmingly played by Rachel Fenton) is one of the most natural in the play. And there is wonderful contrast between the dying mother's anguished intensity and the gentle loopiness of the aging Hippie.  Chris Jones gives a strong performance as Jan's friend, Ferdinand. Really the entire cast is solid.

But there are many times in the evening when the actors and director seem to forget that shouting is not the most effective way to give intensity and depth to a conflict. Jan and his friends occasionally are to be thus faulted, and even disagreements on subtleties of Sappho are sometimes exchanged at angry top volume.

Patrick Huber's set includes the Greek's rotating periaktos to make the many changes quick and smooth. There are psychedelic projections and always rock music during the brief changes, but again and again the music is abruptly and jarringly cut off. This is so consistently done that it must be intentional, but its dramatic purpose is lost on me; it's merely irritating.

The theatre at the History Museum is a less-than cozy venue. It's a sterile, institutional, "no-you-may-NOT-put-a-screw-into-our-stage" sort of theatre. The production might have been happier at the Gaslight.

Costumes, by Teresa Doggett, are impressive and always appropriate to their era, and Robin Weatherall's sound—with all that great rock—contributes vitally.

In the end it is the script itself that poses insuperable problems. Stoppard really attempts too broad a canvas. This decades-long panorama includes just too many political figures and events, too many personal traumas, too many changing relationships, and quite simply too many people to be intelligibly portrayed in two hours' traffic on the stage. The fact that Actors Studio has given even more of its actors double and triple roles than did the Broadway or London productions merely adds to the confusion. More than once I found myself asking, "Now, who the heck is this guy?"

Nevertheless there is good acting and for Stoppard fans Rock 'n' Roll is worth an evening. It continues at the History Museum through November 21.

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