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Siegel: 'Rock 'n' Roll' Balances Head, Heart

The British playwright Tom Stoppard has long been a favorite of Huntington Theatre Company audiences. The theater is presenting the New England premiere of his latest play, "Rock 'n' Roll," which deals in large part with the Czechoslovakian uprising of 1968.

Morning Edition critic at large Ed Siegel offers this review.

Well, even with Tom Stoppard's fondness for this Rolling Stones classic, you know his play isn't going to be about only rock 'n' roll. It's going to be about, let's see, political activism vs. personal realization, reason vs. Eros, and, for good measure, the Greek lyric poet, Sappho.

Intimidated? Don't be. What makes Stoppard one of the world's more celebrated playwrights is the fact you don't need to know any more about Vladimir Lenin than John Lennon to get the drift of where he's going. Both their spirits hover over this play, by the way.

And what makes Stoppard one of the world's great playwrights, is his ability to tie all these disparate elements together in a way that revitalizes our relationship to everything from rock 'n' roll to finding a balance between passion and intellect.

Here's the story. Stoppard, whose family fled Czechoslovakia when he was a child, imagines what it would have been like if he had gone back to his native land during the 1968 uprising in Prague.

Stoppard's stand-in, Jan, thinks that rock music, not political dissidence, is more likely to subvert Soviet repression. Here, Jan, played by Manoel Feliciano, argues in favor of the Czechoslovakian group, Plastic People of the Universe:

[excerpt] "They're unbribable. They're coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They're not heretics. They're pagans."

Feliciano is the first among equals in the Huntington Theatre Company's superb coproduction with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. It's directed by that company's artistic director Carey Perloff, who's had a long, fruitful association with Stoppard and his work.

Another presence who hovers over this play is the late Syd Barrett, one-time member of Pink Floyd. Here he's a symbol of both youthful, poetic beauty and the inexorable betrayal of the body. The British tabloids hounded Barrett toward the end of his life, taking photos of the poor, lumpy fellow grocery shopping. Stoppard, or at least his characters, wonder whether the capitalist newspapers aren't serving the same purpose as the Soviet media, both serving the needs of their corporate, or communist, masters.

Stoppard's arguments are discursive at times. Here Jan is talking about the Czech prime minister Gustav Husak and the population's apathy about how he undid the reforms of his predecessor:

[excerpt] "So Husak can relax, he's made the rules, it's his game. The population plays the other way, by agreeing to be bribed by places at university, or an easy ride at work."

In "Rock 'n' Roll," Stoppard appeals to the heart as well as the mind. Except for "The Real Thing" — Stoppard's meditation on marriage — the two have never been in such balance.

[excerpt: John Lennon singing Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me"]

And since the balance of head and heart is what Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" is about, add this to the playwright's list of outstanding accomplishments. And give credit to Perloff and Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois for mounting such a fine production in Boston.

"Rock 'n' Roll" continues at the Huntington Theatre through Dec. 13. Critic at large Ed Siegel reviews theater and the arts for Morning Edition.

This program aired on November 20, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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