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Arts and Entertainment

Theater Review: Stoppard's Czech Rock'N'Roll

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Benjamin Burdick's Jan takes those old records off the shelf (photo: Jordana Burn)
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Truth, love, and the potent spirit of Syd Barrett triumph over lies, hatred, and the dull memory of Gustav Husak in Rock'N'Roll, Tom Stoppard's great play about the long era of totalitarian torpor in Czechoslovakia between the Soviet invasion in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution over two decades later. Since its premiere in London in 2006 and on Broadway the following year, Rock'N'Roll has been performed by major companies in cities around the U.S. and the world, but somehow L.A.'s own institutional mainstays neglected to grab this one. Fortunately, though, the always-admirable Open Fist Theatre Company has picked up the slack, and Rock'N'Roll is now playing in L.A. for the first time.

Jan (Benjamin Burdick) is a young Czech grad student at Cambridge under the tutelage of the fiery Communist don Max (Will Kepper) in the late '60s. Jan has everything he could ever want in the UK: a promising academic career, a budding romance with Max's daughter Esme (Laetitia Leon), and--perhaps most precious to him of all--easy access to all the rock'n'roll records he could ever want. But when Jan returns home to Prague for a visit not long after the Russian tanks have rolled in, he unwittingly locks the door behind him and finds himself trapped in a repressive police state. Suspected of harboring subversive political and cultural inclinations, Jan is constantly hounded by internal state security forces, forced to work as a menial laborer, and eventually imprisoned. And his treasured, envied collection of new music LPs brought back from England...alas, the powers that be don't let those go untouched, either.

The action moves back and forth between Prague and Cambridge over the long period from 1968 to 1990, following the occasionally interlinked sagas of Jan and his cohort of un-Communist outsiders in the Czech lands and Max and his family in England. Max's misguided devotion to his political cause emotionally alienates him from his cancer-stricken wife. And Jan wants nothing to do with politics, resisting even his good friend Ferda (Jeremy Guskin)'s efforts to get him to sign anti-government petitions, as he prefers to immerse himself in the apparent refuge of Bohemia's underground music scene.

Rock'N'Roll may seem a little esoteric to those entirely unfamiliar with Czech music and politics, given its frequent references to specific real-world personalities and events. Most American audiences probably know who Vaclav Havel is, but less identifiable entities like Husak, Jirous, Dubcek, the Plastic People of the Universe, and the Charter '77 movement are also frequently discussed as if they were obvious cultural reference points. Still, the play's epic scope, and its persistent humor and good cheer, ride smoothly over the occasional bumps of obscurity that Stoppard throws in along the way.

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Director Barbara Schofield and her team of stage designers also help matters with their very effective use of period historical footage in between scenes as well as evocative settings and costumes--even haircuts--although some of the Cambridge moments are less focused than their Prague counterparts. Most of the
16-member cast, too, effectively convey the spirit of the action's distinctive time and place. And when the play culminates in the overthrow of the Communist regime and the promise of long-awaited freedom for all of its characters, the exuberance of the new era fills the whole theater. The effect is totally rock'n'roll.

Rock'N'Roll plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8, Sundays at 2, through December 18 at the Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, in Hollywood. Tickets are $25 and $20 on the Open Fist web site, $16.50 on lastagetix.com and goldstar.com. "Pay what you can" admission for Sunday matinees in November.