Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Theater review: Mosaic's 'Rock 'n' Roll' a heady evening of Stoppard

Antonio Amadeo, left, and Gordon McConnell in Rock 'n' Roll.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

More than 40 years ago, Czech-born journalist-turned-playwright Tom Stoppard burst onto the world stage with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, his hommage to Samuel Beckett and the emptiness and impotence of his characters.

Ever since, however, Stoppard (at right) has been stuffing his plays with heady ideas and dialectical notions, moving from nothingness to cerebral overload. He is the kind of writer who challenges an audience to keep up with him -- and it often is not easy -- but how refreshing to encounter a play that contains more than one can reasonably process in a single sitting, rather than those that spoon feed us less.

Such a thought-laden play is Rock ’n’ Roll, a juxtaposition of Czech history from 1968 to 1990, from the Prague Spring reforms to the subsequent repressive aftermath, with the period’s rebellious rock music. Stoppard puts a face on such potentially dry material, letting us see that tumultuous time through the eyes of a staunchly Marxist professor at Cambridge, his cancer-ravaged wife and his star pupil, a Czech who leaves the comforts of academia for the upheaval in his homeland.

Still, while Stoppard wants to draw us in to the emotional turmoil of these characters, it keeps being overshadowed by the politics. At least it does in Mosaic Theatre’s Southeastern premiere production, which has not yet achieved the clarity, verbal agility and seeming effortlessness that the play requires.

Artistic director Richard Jay Simon deserves credit for stretching himself and his actors with Rock ‘n’ Roll, but in its opening weekend, it was the ambition that was most evident rather than the mastery of the material.

As the play begins, fervent Communist Max (Gordon McConnell) is trying unsuccessfully to prevent shaggy-haired graduate student Jan (Antonio Amadeo) from dropping out of school for the cultural revolution occurring in Czechoslovakia. So off Jan goes, taking only his treasured rock ‘n’ roll recordings.

In Prague, Jan soon attracts the attention of the secret police, is jailed and reduced to years of work in a bakery. He eventually returns to England, long after Max’s wife (Laura Turnbull) has died, for a climactic reunion with Max and a reconsideration of their political ideals.

As densely packed as that synopsis sounds, it leaves out the play’s tangential inclusion of the poetry of Sappho, the rise and fall of rocker Syd Barrett from the group Pink Floyd, the Czech Charter 77 declaration and the many other references that have led Simon to pass out four-page glossaries with each program.

Simon has certainly gathered some of the area’s best performers for the three central roles, but at this point, they still seem to be wrestling with their dialogue, spouting diatribes from the author rather than conversing. It is that ownership of the script by their characters that is missing, the potential portal to the play’s heart.

Sean McClelland takes over much of the theater with his scenic design, with the twin poles of Prague and Cambridge at opposite sides of the space, and a versatile middle ground playing area in between. Nothing has been stinted on this season opener for Mosaic, except perhaps some additional rehearsal time for the cast.

This is not a fully satisfying evening of theater, but there is so much to take in in Rock ‘n’ Roll that it can be sufficient nourishment for the mind regardless of how much of the play flies by overhead. There is plenty here to think about, even if you are likely to be left unmoved.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, Mosaic Theatre, 12200 West Broward Blvd., Plantation. Continuing through Oct. 4. Tickets: $37. Call: (954) 577-8243.

Laura Turnbull in Rock 'n' Roll.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

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