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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

he rock 'n' roll underground, as Jirous said, was an attack on the official culture of Communist Czechoslovakia, and in case he didn't get the point, the regime sent him to gaol four times during those 20 years: culture is politics.— Sir Tom Stoppard in his introduction to the play
Benjamin Burdick
(Photo: Tom Burruss)
For maximum enjoyment of some playwrights' work, you need a foreign language dictionary. For others, an encyclopedia. To really feel like you're on top of Sir Tom Stoppard's romance-cum political rumination Rock 'N' Roll, there are times you feel like you need the whole damned reference aisle.

Director Barbara Schofield and her dramaturg Jim Boyle have gone to some lengths to bring the work into context. The lobby walls of the Open Fist Theatre Company, where Schofield's production is in its Los Angeles premiere, have reams of information on Vaclav Havel, key dates in Czechoslovakian history and relevant music. Visitors to Rock 'N' Roll would do well to arrive early for some wall study. In any case, for this play, attention must be paid.

It is not this critic's intention to frighten away those who might balk at an erudite think piece. However, beutger am I buying the bill of goods that Rock 'N' Roll, ecstatically reviewed in its London and New York productions, is at its heart, a love story. Yes, there is all manner of passion in the air between Jan, the Czech grad student, Esme the daughter of Jan's Marxist mentor, Max, Max's wife Eleanor and maybe even the Great God Pan. Unlike in the playwright's Arcadia however — which remains my personal favorite of Stoppard's works &mdash ; rooting through the politics, the dense language and even, at times, the plot is a tougher assignment this time around. Rock 'N' Roll is a more packed play. Also, a more personal one.

The Open Fist is brave to take it on, and the results are sure handed and utterly professional. Using a projection scheme (by Liam Carl Design) to strong effect and making sure those 33s seem to play with their unscratched clarity (the sound design is Peter Carlstedt's), Schofield's production is clear and focused historically, tripping across four turbulent decades (via A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's costumes) with assurance.

The cast matches the production's technical and visual strength. Paced by Benjamin Burdick's Jan (the Stoppard autobiographical stand-in), Will Kepper's Max, and a fiercely honest Beth Robbins as Max's cancer ravaged wife Eleanor, Rock 'N' Roll's teachers, rockers, dissidents and dreamers can reach your gut as well as your cerebellum.

It begins in January as Jan, the philosophy grad student, who renounces Cambridge for Prague, his homeland, leaving behind Max, Esme (her virginity intact), but taking his precious record collection. The Soviet tanks have rolled into Prague, and Jan's avenues against &mdash or around &mdash the threat of communism are limited. Jan's friend Ferdinand (Jeremy Guskin) holds up the counter-cultural band the Plastic People of the Universe as a paragon of rebellion. Jan, whose secret will become clearer, loves their music if nothing else.

Spanning the emergence of the democratic movement in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Stoppard is looking at broken spirits and broken records alike. Max, comparatively safe in Cambridge, clings to his beliefs in the Soviet ideals as his dying wife continues to teach the poetry of Sappho. Their counter-culture embracing daughter Esme (Laetitia Leon) , who was once serenaded by Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, may need to find her way back to Jan — and he to her.

It may be that any production of Rock 'N' Rollwill forfeit a certain among of tragic urgency once Eleanor dies. Certainly Robbins's Eleanor seems to run both deeper and more passionate than Leon's Esme (truth be told, Stoppard has written more interesting female characters in other plays). With Eleanor gone, Esme, her daughter Alice (Maxie Solters) and Jan's one-time fling Lenka (Amanda Weier) are left to rekindle the play's youthful and romantic dynamics. Unlike earlier productions, Schofield does not bring back the actress who played Eleanor to play Esme as an adult. When Robbins is gone, alas, she does not return.

If you can accept the play as Jan's journey — and, to a lesser extent, Max's — through treacherous political times, then the play certainly succeeds. Burdick's Jan is passionate, deeply conflicted and flawed in all too human ways. Stoppard is interested in those qualities of the human character, but by God, he'll give you an education along the way.

For Curtainup's review of the play in London and on Broadway go here
Rock 'N' Roll
by Sir Tom Stoppard
Directed by Barbara Schofield
Cast: John Dimitri (The Piper/Stephen), Laetitia Leon (Esme), Benjamin Burdick (Jan), Will Kepper (Max),Beth Robbins (Eleanor), Jordana Berliner (Gillian/Magda), Daniel Escobar (Interrogator/Milan), Jeremy Guskin (Ferdinand), Andrew Dodson (Policeman), Amanda Weier (Lenka), Matt Roe (Nigel), Maxie Solters (Alice), Rona Nix (Candida), Angelita Torres (Pupil), Daniel May (Waiter)
Stage Manager: Kim Mowrey
Set Design: James Spencer and Kis Knekt
Costume Design: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Lighting Design: Jason Mullen
Sound Design: Peter Carlstedt
Graphics and Projection Design: Liam Carl Design
Dramaturg: Jim Boyle
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Open Fist Theatre Company6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
From November 5 to December 18
Fri-Sat. @ 8pm, Sun. @ 2 pm
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on November 5 performance.
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