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Theater review: 'Rock 'n' Roll' at the Open Fist

November 11, 2010 |  6:30 pm

A word to the wise:  If you're planning to take in Tom Stoppard's 2006 drama, “Rock 'n' Roll,” at the Open Fist, you might want to arrive a bit early and study the timelines in the lobby, which detail Czechoslovakia’s turbulent political history from 1968 to 1990 and key events in the rock music scene during that era.

Read Rockthem carefully. Otherwise your head just may explode at some point during this Los Angeles premiere, which presupposes an intimate familiarity with Czech history, the early rock scene and, oh, did we mention Sapphic poetry?

It’s all a bit ostentatious and difficult to follow — but even at his most intellectually prolix, Stoppard is flat-out brilliant, arguably our greatest living playwright.

The key antagonists in Stoppard's sprawling drama, set alternately in Cambridge, England, and Prague, are Max (Will Kepper), a Cambridge professor and fiery-eyed Communist, and Max’s friend and protégé, Jan (Benjamin Burdick), a Czech student who returns to Czechoslovakia for a visit — and gets trapped there for 20 years.

The wrenchingly ironic juxtaposition of Cambridge radicalism and Soviet despotism, set to the pounding rhythms of rock, gives Stoppard, Czech by birth, the opportunity to air his own deeply personal views on the subject — replete with enough obscure references to confound the most ardent academic.

Barbara Schofield's direction, while thoughtful, fails to maximize the potential of the capacious playing area.  The large and emotionally acute cast spends a great deal of energy chasing errant dialects. Some actors are even a bit mush-mouthed, which contributes to the general inaccessibility.

One suspects, however, that many problems will smooth out during the run.  In any event, Stoppard never disappoints — even when he’s showing off a bit.

— F. Kathleen Foley

“Rock 'n' Roll.” The Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18. $25. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 3 hours.

Photo: Laetitia Leon, Benjamin Burdick. Credit: Tom Burruss.