SOLIDARITY Estrella and O’Brien. Photo: PETER GOLDBERG
Anyone could notice that rock and politics both seek a sense of freedom, but it takes a theatrical genius like Tom Stoppard to come up with Rock ’n’ Roll, which merges the pulsing spirit of both until they feel like one. And it takes a theater of the caliber of the Gamm to make history feel like a Stones concert that becomes a political rally.
The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is mounting the 2006 play through May 30 and riding it full-gallop. It takes place in Cambridge, England, and the British playwright’s native Czechoslovakia from the time Russian tanks rolled in to repress the Prague Spring in 1968 through the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and settles down in its optimistic wake over the next few years.
More than 20 songs pulse through, from Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke to the Rolling Stones and U2. The rocker singled out to represent them all, though, is a dramatist’s pick: Syd Barrett, one of the founders of Pink Floyd, who deteriorated from golden child to mind-melted drug casualty, but who nevertheless has more songs in Rock ’n’ Roll than anyone else. He is the first person we see here, briefly, noticed by one of the characters as he plays a recorder in a park, looking like a beckoning Pan.
The main person around which all this whirls is Jan (Tony Estrella), a Czech post-doctoral student in Cambridge, whom we first see when he has decided to return home, invasion be damned. His mentor at the university is Max (Jim O’Brien), a devout Communist who doesn’t think a few tanks here or there amount to much when it comes to improving mankind through a better social order. To no effect, Jan points out that Marx didn’t trust us, and he proposed a dictatorship of the proletariat that would be necessary until people could get along in a utopia.
Eventually Max comes to see the limitations of dialectical materialism. His wife, Eleanor (Jeanine Kane), has cancer. It has been eating away parts of her but, she points out, it is taking away nothing from who she truly is. In a hard-hitting scene, she shames Max, angrily and tearfully demanding that he look beyond her material self and comfort her pained spirit. This is marvelously echoed in a snappy, skillfully performed scene in which the lively Czech emigre Lenka (Casey Seymour Kim) flirtatiously argues with Max about the tangibility and primacy of feelings.
Jan’s closest friend is Ferdinand (Steve Kidd), whose only English is rock lyrics, and whose enthusiasm for progressive political protest makes him a stand-in for Vaclav Havel, Stoppard’s friend and the first president of the Czech Republic in 1993. Ferdinand is always trying to get Jan to sign one protest petition or other, but cheerful, optimistic Jan waves them away as ineffective “moral exhibitionism.” At least he feels that way until he tries to get Ferdinand to sign one after students are enticed to a rock concert to be arrested.