Rock'n'Roll – Bluma Appel Theatre

By Dana Lacey

Rock 'n' Roll

I think the biggest problem with Canstage’s Rock’n’Roll was me. I thought my love for rock’n’roll history would be enough to enjoy this production–not so. Right from the opening scene I had no idea what was going on.

Rock’n’Roll is written by Tom Stoppard (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame…or if you’re not familiar with existential theatre, he also won an screenplay Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.) But for all his theatre cred, I didn’t much enjoy Stoppard’s newest offering.

The promotional blurb says “The music of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Stones and U2 signal the dawn of a new era in Czechoslovakia in 1968 when restrictions on free speech and travel are lifted, but when the USSR invades, the struggle for freedom is ignited once again…”

Okay, great, I thought. It’s a story about rock’n’roll and revolution. I can dig it.

I was wrong.

The tunes are incredible. They play unpredictable but poignant songs by bands like the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones at full volume, accompanied with psycedelic swirls of colour that perfectly distract from the numerous set changes. You could identify the music snobs in the crowd from their murmurs of approval.

The actors were all fantastic. I especially liked the fiercely intelligent and hilarious Eleanor, played by the wonderful Fiona Reid. She had lab-worthy chemistry with her husband Max (Kenneth Welsh), a bull-headed communist who supports his party long after it’s cool, becoming a sort of joke as he continues to fight for what he considers the most beautiful and simple of political revolutions: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. His debates with his former pupil are tight, intelligent and packed with wit. They cover just about every intellectual ‘ism’ you can imagine.

Slowly, I started to get the hang of the play and even laughed a few times…but overall, I was completely lost. I tried to turn to the program, but all that was provided was an unwieldy timeline that mixed rock history with Czech history which was too hard to read. Besides, a list of historic dates and actions doesn’t offer any insight into the politics the actors were debating.

The first act was an incredibly long hour and a half. We didn’t stay for Act 2. In hindsight, I should have attended one of the pre-show music and history lectures ( Oct 7, 14 and 21 at 7:15 p.m. in the theatre lobby). But alas, I didn’t.

The friend I brought was similarly unimpressed. It’s not that the play wasn’t fantastic production-wise: well-written, beautifully acted, great sets and even better music. But it’s all moot when you have no idea what’s happening. Rock’n’Roll is a play for people who lived through the 60s and 70s. For people who lived when communism was popular, then illegal, then disgraceful. For people who were forced to cut their hair.

But for the average theatre-goer that isn’t a history buff? Do your homework before seeing this play. You’ll probably enjoy it more if it doesn’t make you feel incredibly ignorant.

Photo of Shaun Smyth and Cyrus Lane by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Rock’n’Roll runs until Oct 24, 2009 at Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front. St. East, Toronto)
– Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8 p.m., as well as 1:30 p.m.  on Wednesdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays.

– Ticket prices range from $20 to $74.

-Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 416 368 3110