"Rock 'n' Roll" by Tom Stoppard, SSU Evert B. Person Theater, Rohnert Park CA

Photo by Jeff Thomas

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

With their production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in its North Bay premiere, it appears Sonoma State University’s Theatre Arts Department may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Despite its name, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is not a musical lark. It’s an intricate, emotionally difficult and highly intellectual piece spanning the years 1968 through 1990, with the action alternating between Czechoslovakia and England. On the surface, it’s about family and personal relationships affected by differences in viewpoint and geography, but at its core is about the conflicting ideals of capitalism and communism. It puts forth the bold theory that human culture can influence and even destroy the best-laid plans of seemingly unstoppable political movements. Stoppard’s play is like a train barreling down the tracks, powered by the music of revolution and subversion – rock and roll. Does he suggest that rock music led to the fall of the Iron Curtain? Perhaps.

In many ways, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” contains elements of Stoppard’s own personal story. Born in Czechoslovakia before WWII and raised in England, he morphed from newspaper reporter travelling the world into one of theatre’s most challenging and original talents. The Tony Award-winning playwright of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and “Travesties” also wrote screenplays for Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”, Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”, and “Shakespeare in Love” for which he won an Academy Award. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is one of his newest plays, with its premiere on London’s West End in 2006, and a Broadway opening in 2007.

Very few universities are equipped with enough talent and understanding of Stoppard’s work to successfully mount a production of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Sadly, here it looks more like a class exercise. The transitions between scenes are indistinct. The actors’ movements onstage are very constricted and have an unnatural look, and most of the performances lack character development. Instead of aging characters moving through the years, for the most part what we see are SSU students play-acting, wearing period clothes, makeup and wigs.

This is especially frustrating because the venue is perfectly suited for a production of this stature. The acoustics, lighting and audio-visual effects are superb, as is the set design. The presentation of songs that introduce each decade is very well done, but this fine framework far exceeds the quality of the execution.

Even a USDA Prime steak in the wrong hands can be disappointing. What should be a pleasurably dense and meaty theatrical experience ends up tough and loaded with gristle. The cast and crew needs to go back to the kitchen.

When: March 25 to April 2, 2011
Performance schedule:
7:30 p.m. Friday March 25, Saturday March 26, Tuesday March 29, Friday April 1, Saturday April 2
2:00 p.m. Sunday March 27 performance with post-show discussion

Wednesday March 30 performance with special events:
• 5 p.m. Pre show event featuring SSU Music Professor John Palmer and live music
• 6:30 p.m. Faculty staff night/Open to the public; performance features ASL interpreters

Tickets: $9 to $16 Sonoma State University students FREE for all performances
Location: Sonoma State University, Evert B. Person Theater
Address: 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park CA
Phone: 707-664-2353
Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com
Website: http://www.sonoma.edu/performingarts/