Friday, November 21, 2008

Huntington rocks Tom Stoppard's "Rock and Roll"

Tom Stoppard is that rare playwright who can appeal to the mind as much as the emotion. His latest play, Rock and Roll, which has been extended at the Huntington Theatre through December 13th, is the perfect example of the playwright's mastery of catharsis, intellect, and politics. Take Czechoslovakian, communist politics told through the perspective of a collegiate family in Cambridge, England, spanning three decades and underscored by a rock and roll score of pre-punk dissidents, and you have the basic premise for Stoppard's Rock and Roll. Of course, to assume that anything is basic to Stoppard is like assuming Shakespeare's brevity. Although this milieu could easily be tainted, I believe this production has scored solid gold number 1!

The production of Rock and Roll is a "co-production" with American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco, as the marketing ploy goes. But the fact is that the production is directed by their artistic director, Carey Perloff, designed and built by their technical team, and cast out of their auditions. Therefore, the Huntington merely gave money to produce the show rather than had any artistic in-put, which is why this production far outshines any other work produced by the Huntington in the last few seasons. As the jury is still out on Peter DuBois' contribution to the Huntington, I think the last two shows have been a poor defense, but the partnership with ACT seems to be a winner. This show is quite simply the best production I have seen in Boston in recent memory.

The plot of the show is complicated and defies cursory synopsis. However, I will attempt a bare-bones summary with preemptive apologies to Czech historians, music aficionados, communists, and Mr. Stoppard for my inaccuracies. The play opens in Cambridge, 1969 in the home of Eleanor and Max, two college professors the latter of which is a self-described communist despite the political ramifications of the word. Their daughter Esme has developed a crush on Czech student, Jan, while Eleanor battles cancer and Max battles the astigmatism of his political belief. Jan returns to Czechoslovakia and we learn that he was collecting information, though negligently, for the Czech government. Suddenly, we are placed in his flat which is filled with LPs of rock and roll, the perfect expression of political dissent, in his view. Enter a parade of characters and scenes that provide either further exposition into the characters' lives or their political leanings. Act II jumps into the 1990s with the idealistic Max holding onto his communist beliefs; the political martyr, Jan, adapting to life after jail; the now-grown Esme trying to make peace within her family; and her daughter, Alice, entering Cambridge and surpassing her mother's intellect.

Taking the helm of this challenging work are two actresses whose work equals the technical bravado and composition of the piece. Rene Augesen as the matriarchal and Sappho scholar Eleanor in Act I absolutely grabs one's heartstrings through her emotional and physical struggle with cancer. In Act II she plays a grown Esme delivering a convincing turn as the daughter of Eleanor as a grown woman who never achieved scholastic merit and merely (or is it) desires more than anything to be loved. Playing the younger Esme in Act I, Summer Serafin portrays the perfect blend of youthful sensuality and 60s' revolutionary. While in Act II she delivers as equally a stunning representation of Alice, Esme's daughter who balances her superior intelligence with a teenager's angst and familial struggle. Both of these actresses deliver such superb performances, it is hard to give equal credit to anyone else.

One reason for this may be Stoppard's own misogyny which gives the women more emotionally available roles while the male characters are stereotyped into debating politics and rock and roll. However, this stereotypic gender-divide can also be viewed as a feminist statement in that their emotional reactions to personal and political issues challenge the dominant white, male intellectual model of political activism. As much as I commend Stoppard for his intellect, I question whether or not he intended this interpretation. I believe he wrote the female characters arch's' with the intention of keeping audience interest and in portraying the personal within the political message. The result, however, is male characters too involved in their politics to be emotionally available to either their loved ones or the audience.

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