Tom Stoppard, now 81, is a lot like Milan Kundera. Both Czech-born, both exiles, both writers, both still going strong. Both believers in the healing power of love.
Rock ‘n’ Roll, which premiered in London in 2006, is sprawling, full of passion, raw emotion, philosophy, and sensuality. Stoppard manages to cover Czech political history from the Prague Spring up through the Velvet Revolution, and at the same time, injects notes about theories of materialist consciousness and the poetry of Sappho.
As the first Chicago production in more than 10 years, The Artistic Home courageously mounts this behemoth of a play at its resident storefront theater in West Town. In a word, the set, designed by Kevin Hagan, is-- in this writer's view-- brilliant. It’s as if you took all the tchotchkes that were the ‘60s—flowers, guitars, record covers, peace signs, paint, butterflies—mixed them up in a blender and then flung the mixture all over the walls and stage. Both an exercise in sentimental nostalgia and a poetic statement about the turbulence of the era, it’s a trip worth taking.
Why Rock ‘n’ Roll? Why now? By knowing your history, perhaps you won’t dare to repeat it. “Politics are personal,” says Artistic Director Kathy Scambiatterra. “Rock ‘n’ Roll is current, again. Freedom of expression, rock ‘n’ roll music, and social consciousness are front and center in Stoppard’s story of political and personal change.”
We expect to see a decadent play about drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll, and instead follow Jan, a Czech PhD student on leave at Cambridge, who returns to Prague as the Warsaw pact troops and tanks are rolling in. Jan gets involved in the underground music scene, considered “dissident” by the regime, and eventually becomes an endorser of Charter 77.
Meanwhile, in Cambridge we witness Jan’s mentor, Max, a British professor and staunch advocate of Marxist economics, confront his own personal struggle between the rational beliefs of his intellect and the stark reality of his [repressed] emotional life.
In between scenes, we’re treated to gorgeous tracks from the Rock heroes of the time--the Stones, Dylan, Syd Barrett, and Lou Reed. Instead of being a balm for hedonistic odysseys, we experience Rock as it is for Jan—a catalyst for rebellion, a venue for artistic expression, and a risky stab at freedom.
There’s some great dialogue between Jan and Max concerning the “rationality of ideals” (Communism) and the disturbing reality of utopianism. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” says Max. “What could be more simple, more rational, more beautiful? It was the right idea in the wrong conditions for 50 years and counting. A blip.” To which Jan responds, “A blip. Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler. Perhaps we aren’t good enough for this beautiful idea.”
The acting, in this writer's view is impressive. H.B. Ward as the staunch Marxist carries the heavy Eastern European tone of the play with gravitas and remarkably well. Kristin Collins is sympathetic as the wife and mother dying from cancer, and the second act, is spirited as the adult version of her own daughter. Julian Hester convinces as the rock-obsessed idealist.
Through Jan, we see how history and time inform the transformation from naïve idealism to sober pragmatism, and through both Jan and Max, how love transcends both art and politics. This is a great pick for history buffs, or for those who enjoy deep, intense plays.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Sara Ann Dickey
Through November 18, 2018
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
The Artistic Home Theatre
1376 W Grand Ave
Chicago IL 60642
About the Author
Marla Seidell is an actress, writer, and blogger. She has covered independent film, music, visual art, theater, dining, fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle for a wide range of outlets, including ARTNEWS, Artslant.com, Citysearch.com, the New York Post, Timeout Chicago, Newcity, ALARM, The Daily Herald, ReelChicago.com, and The A.V. Club. Marla has performed in over 30 short and feature films and was nominated for Best Actress at the 2015 Laugh or Die Comedy Film Festival. Favorite stage roles include God (Our Christian Nation, Cornservatory) and various eccentric roles in This, That, and The Other Thing (On The Spot Theatre Co.) Marla graduated Honors, Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Hofstra University, and was a Fulbright in the Netherlands.
See her current work on Marla Seidell Facebook.