Once in a great while you witness a production which takes your breath away…and leaves you exhilarated for days and days. You marvel at what a director can do with material you’ve seen before and weren’t especially moved by.
What director Kaitlin Chantry does with Tom Stoppard’s ROCK ‘n’ ROLL at the Longwood is simply extraordinary. Stoppard is my favorite playwright. I adore his high flying ideas (which literally flew in JUMPERS) but which sometimes fall flat in productions that can’t handle the delicate balance (to quote my second favorite playwright) between the intellect and the emotions. Chantry handles it like a Stradivarius or should I say a Stratocaster.
Stoppard’s plays are not easy. They’re not the kind of theater you let wash over you. You have to pay close attention to every wrinkle. I don’t mean for this to sound like drudgery. Stoppard’s wit rewards your efforts a thousand fold. That said, I will concede that ROCK ‘n’ ROLL is one of his densest scripts (perhaps because of his connection to the subject matter, having spent his childhood years in Czechoslovakia).
Chantry’s cast rocks the play, led by Anthony Mullin in a tour de force as Max, the irascible old guard communist who believes that “everything is economic, even social relations.” Stoppard has a grand time putting hilarious pronouncements into his mouth, like his dismissal of ‘history.’ “[There’s been] no history since 1968,” he barks, “only pseudo-history.” Mullin’s powerful presence dominates the production, lighting up the philosophy lessons with the sardonic twinkle in his eye.
Comic performances abound: Matthew Zahnzinger is wonderful as the shallow, self-serving, future ex-husband of Max’s daughter. Lisa Lokshin is delightful as the uptight literary student flummoxed by Sappho, in her tutorial with Max’s long suffering (from both Max and cancer) wife, beautifully portrayed by Joy Lambertson. Stoppard engineers her return after death as her grown daughter, who now looks “so much like her mother.” Anna Waldron, too, returns as her own daughter, definitely inheriting her mother’s stubborn streak. And Meredith Saran pulls off a nifty comic turn as an arrogant, seductive student with designs on Max.
On the serious side, the pros and cons of Czech resistance are deftly debated by James Aitchison as Jan (standing in for President Vaclav Havel who, in fact, was imprisoned by the communists for his dissident views) and Michael Chateauneuf as Ferdinand (named for Havel’s “Ferdinand” plays, accused by Jan of “moral exhibitionism”). Both young men are devout fans of British and American rock ‘n roll, which figures in Stoppard’s play as the symbol, if not the agent provocateur, of revolution in Czechoslovakia.
Stoppard peppers the play with rock references like Syd Barrett and Ed Sanders’ Fugs and even ends the play at the Lennon wall in Prague. (Lenin gets no mention.) And, best of all, we are treated to glorious music between scenes (on John Randell’s exquisite Brit/Czech sets), from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to Gerry Garcia.