Goodman Theatre molds Tom Stoppard’s harrowing play into an incredibly human package
Review by Barry Eitel
If anyone knows about the transitive power of music, it would be the Czechs. In 1989, the oppressive Communist government of Czechoslovakia was peacefully overthrown in the “Velvet Revolution,” termed after the band The Velvet Underground. The subversive yet inspiring properties of rock music played a major role in bringing democracy to the country.
In his newest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, produced by the Goodman Theatre, Tom Stoppard depicts the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution. The play begins amid Soviet tanks rolling into Prague to switch out the progressive government, ending the reformative “Prague Spring” of 1968. However, the play does far more than document Czech history; winding over twenty-two turbulent years, Stoppard intertwines the lives of characters that span different nations, political systems, generations, and ideologies. The Chicago premier of the play, directed by the inspired Charles Newell, stuffs all of the love, loss, and intense intellectual debate into an incredibly human package. And with the best soundtrack on-stage right now, the Goodman production leaves plenty of room for a little rock and roll along the way.
Set designer John Culbert transformed the massive Albert Stage into a concert venue, complete with scaffolding and speakers so massive they could make every ear in the audience bleed. The colossal scale of the set matches the epic tone of the play, which can move thousands of miles from scene to scene. In order to switch from location to location quickly, furniture on platforms is rolled out from the wings and sometimes huge pieces are dropped from the flies. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design accentuates Culbert’s set smartly. All of the design melds brilliantly together—the space seems more like a Bonnaroo stage than the Goodman theatre.
Timothy Edward Kane is an expressive, vivacious Jan, the Czech doctor of philosophy/rock’n’roll fanatic that the play follows. Kane’s performance captures all of the forces tugging at Jan’s psyche as he attempts to balance his ideals, his relationships with those around him, and his harsh reality under the suppressive regime. Perhaps most importantly, Kane bursts with Jan’s intense passion for music. As Jan’s mentor in Marxism, Max, Stephen Yoakam is fiery. It is heart-wrenching to watch as he clutches to obsolete ideologies as his English world, including his family, abandons them as the Cold War thaws. Another stand-out performance is Goodman veteran Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Max’s wife Eleanor and, twenty years later, his daughter Esme. She differentiates and contrasts the generational gap clearly, as well as having some of the most emotional intense moments in the production.
Newell nails the theatricality of Stoppard’s play, punching up the classic rock world as much as possible. He uses a mysterious piper (a limber Greg Matthew Anderson) to string the story together, having him weave himself among the scaffolding. The “enlightened” Esme confuses the Robert Smith look-a-like for the god Pan. It turns out the ghostly figure might be Pink Floyd’s estranged frontman, Syd Barrett. But the piper maintains a spritely aspect about him, staying eternally young as everyone else ages. This is just one of many examples of how the production captures the imagination instead of sticking inside realistic world. Newell’s daring stylistic choices really pay off, keeping the play exciting while also preserving the human struggle.
Like most Stoppard, the play is highly intellectual and not for everybody, and occasionally the pace slackens during the debates. But even if you don’t understand the Sappho references or Socialist theory, the vibrant relationships linking the characters are still extremely powerful. The captivating language also maintains a tight grip on the audience, even if some of the content requires a masters degree.
This is arguably Stoppard’s finest work, and the Goodman’s production celebrates both the rock spectacle and the inspiring humanity of the story. The audience is left reminded that our world is constantly warping and flowing, like a deep ocean of ideas, cultures, and human connections.
- Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll on stage
- A Backstage Pass to Rock ‘n’ Roll (Director Charles Newell and the cast talk about Tom Stoppard’s newest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll.)
Below: Stark differences between “Prague Spring” and the “Velvet Revolution”
On the left – Molotov Cocktails thrown during the bloody Prague Spring uprising. On the right, flowers (given to policemen) are used in the peaceful overthrow of the Czech/Soviet Republic in what is now known as the “Velvet Revolution”