Tom Stoppard, the Velvet Revolution and Pink Floyd meet in Hollywood
Pink Floyd fans still floating on the sprawling ambition of Roger Waters’ restaging of the group’s 1979 grand opus “The Wall” at Staples Center last week (and moving to Anaheim for a pair of shows next week) can keep the feeling alive with an equally stimulating if very different enterprise that’s running for a couple more weeks in Hollywood.
It’s the Open Fist Theatre’s staging of British playwright Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” in its Los Angeles premiere.
As a long-time admirer of Stoppard’s work, and having read F. Kathleen Foley's largely enthusiastic review in The Times, I attended a recent performance and couldn't help but wonder at the remarkable coincidence of the timing, having taken in “The Wall” just a few nights earlier.
Stoppard’s play, which runs through Dec. 18, focuses on a young Czech man, Jan, who, like Stoppard, moved from his native country to England in his youth, where he reveled in the cultural revolution going on around him. Jan is particularly drawn to the music that acted as catalyst and soundtrack for so much social change, and the play is rife with recordings by and references to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and numerous other classic-rock acts, including Pink Floyd. In particular, Syd Barrett-era Floyd.
It opens with the female protagonist, Esme, enraptured as a mysterious troubadour sings to her from atop a very symbolic wall. In her hippy-dippy haze, she tells Jan she’s just been serenaded by “The great god, Pan” and subsequently refers to him as “the piper.” But the words the curly haired figure has been singing are from “Astronomy Domine,” from Floyd’s album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” before founding member Barrett went through a breakdown that prompted his exit from the band and, for the most part, from public life.
Barrett’s name and presence resurface through the three-hour play, which isn’t simply a reverie for the good old days of rock ‘n’ roll, but another Stoppard whirlwind of provocative ideas about communism, capitalism, individual freedom and courage in the face of monolithic social and political forces.
It spans the late-‘60s through 1990, dealing in a big way with the Velvet Revolution of 1968 and its aftermath, when the then-Soviet Union rolled tanks into the streets of Prague to quell any chance of a political uprising. Ultimately, the other wall -- the one in Berlin separating the free world from the communist controlled regions in Eastern Europe -- came down.
Stoppard’s play examines the role that Western rock music played for thousands, or millions, of young people who were living amid the turmoil in a riveting exchange of ideas and ideals among the play’s central characters.
The connections with Waters’ new version of “The Wall” were hard to miss, but weren’t exactly planned that way.
“We started petitioning for the rights to produce the L.A. premiere of ‘Rock 'n' Roll’ back in January,” Open Fist artistic director Martha Demson told me after I asked whether it was sheer coincidence their production was running while “The Wall” was in town.
“At that time, I had no idea that ‘The Wall’ would be touring, I had not even heard about it,” she said. “However, once we had the rights and were moving into production, we became aware of the event. I was delighted at the synchronicity and we moved quickly to present the play. Our decision to produce the play was not motivated by ‘The Wall’ tour, however.”
Rock fans can just be grateful for the fortunate timing.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: The cast in the Open Fist Theatre Co.'s production of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll." Credit: Tom Burruss