How far will you follow Tom Stoppard down a rabbit hole, and what will you discover there? Go find out at ACT, where his latest play Rock 'ên'ê Roll runs through Nov. 8.
Stoppard'ês body of work tempers alarm with charm: He worked on the screenplay for Brazil but also authored Shakespeare in Love. He is a modern writer in the tradition of Beckett and Pinter, but he'ês gentler and more pensive, showing wistfulness in place of Pinter'ês menace. Stoppard's characters linger around the edges of history: His Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tried but failed to make sense of Hamlet'ês urgent world, and Rock 'ên'ê Roll flutters about in the minor eddies of social and political whirlwinds. It reads like a Shakespeare history whose titular monarch never makes an entrance.
The play is, according to its author, 'êpartly about Communism, partly about consciousness, slightly about Sappho, and mainly about Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1990.'ê Its touchstone is a cameo appearance by young Syd Barrett — Pink Floyd'ês first frontman — who tootles his pipe on a garden wall, incarnating the Greek god Pan. This image is curiously apt. Barrett'ês early album Piper at the Gates of Dawn is named for a chapter in The Wind in the Willows, in which Pan comes to the aid of the questing heroes but then erases their memories, "lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure."
Rock 'ên'ê Roll, too, is about memory and mirth, beginning in 1960s London where pleasure-seeking is the order of the day. In Prague the repressive regime has been shaken up: It'ês Prague Spring and Jan, our Czech hero, tries to bring London pleasures home with him in a suitcase full of rock and roll records. Alas, that spring'ês promise passes unrealized; not until the popular uprisings near the end of 1989, and of the play, can Jan freely indulge his musical enthusiasms.
Stoppard, a Czech, has been an ardent adversary of Communism as it played out in his home country; one expects from him an unadulterated celebration of its fall. Yet he'ês a wise sociologist. In this tale — sketched deftly by the ACT production — both communist and capitalist, idealist and hedonist come away burdened with memory and regret. Quiet betrayals and failed hopes temper the new freedom. The Rolling Stones have come to Prague, but Pan is dead.
The New York production in late 2007 was on a proscenium stage; ACT'ês amphitheater provides an interesting contrast. Prosceniums give directors the opportunity to snow us with extravagant sets: The sight lines are much easier, and it'ês quicker to scoot things in and out of the wings than to trundle them from the vomitoria in an arena. As a result, arena stages often get simpler productions, leaving the actors more exposed. A proscenium offers a picture frame in which the director can control the audience'ês field of vision, but in an arena, audience members dimly perceive one another beside and behind the action; this can distract them if the performers'ê charisma falters. Inside a proscenium, an actor can find his light, cheat downstage, strike a pose and start talking; on an arena stage, half the audience is looking at his back so he must stay active. If he has no prior experience as a hockey goalie or gladiator, the actor may find this disconcerting.
But, by discouraging florid sets and by compelling dynamism from the cast, arena stages can inspire good work. Happily, ACT'ês director, Kurt Beattie, understands the requirements of his stage and of this play. Lacking Rufus Sewell and Brian Cox from the Broadway production, he has nevertheless put together a solid cast and a clean show. Onstage the years pass, marked with paper or chalk and then discarded, but the rock and roll keeps playing.
Several strong performances, in particular from Anne Allgood in her two roles, anchor the play and prevent it from drifting off into dusty colloquies. The pathos of living under repression could be more acutely represented; some of the debate, between the seekers after rapture and their materialist skeptics, feels a bit dry. But this is a strong rendition of an intriguing work that maps our memories from the Velvet Underground to the Velvet Revolution.
Rock 'ên'ê Roll plays at A Contemporary Theatre through Nov. 8. For tickets and more information, see ACT's website.