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Rebellion and the Rolling Stones

Huntington play captures love, music, dissent

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Esme (René Augesen) and Jan (Manoel Felciano) stand in front of Prague’s famous Lennon Wall in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, playing through December 13.

Like the protagonist of Rock ’n’ Roll, the current production of BU’s Huntington Theatre Company, British playwright Tom Stoppard was born to Jewish parents who fled Czechoslovakia when he was a child. After his father was killed during the family’s displacement in the Far East, his mother married an English colonel, who later adopted him. Stoppard never returned to his native country; his fictional counterpart, however, makes the return trip that gives Rock ’n’ Roll its drama.

“I think there is great wisdom in the script,” says Carly Cioffi (CFA’05), the play’s assistant director. “There’s a huge debate over head versus heart, and reason versus gut instinct.”

Rock ’n’ Roll opens in 1968, during an era of civil unrest in the Czech Republic. Jan, a young Czech graduate student and philosopher who is studying in England, begins a romance with Esme, the 16-year-old daughter of Max, Jan’s mentor. But when the Soviets invade the former Czechoslovakia, Jan returns to defend his homeland, leaving behind a brokenhearted Esme.

A fervent newspaper reporter — and an even more avid rock ’n’ roll enthusiast — Jan quickly becomes embroiled with the dissident movement, which is represented by underground bands such as Prague’s Plastic People of the Universe. He spends a year in a Czech prison, and upon release, works for more than 10 years in a bakery. Only when the Berlin Wall falls in 1989 and Czech freedom is restored does he return to England to rekindle his friendship with Max and resolve his romance with Esme.

“More than anything else, Rock ’n’ Roll is a love story,” Cioffi says. “And it isn’t just a love story between Jan and Esme. It’s a love story between Jan and music, Jan and Max, and Jan and his country.”

True to its name, Rock ’n’ Roll incorporates music by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Doors into its script. But the songs provide more than just transitions between scenes. “Tom took a great deal of care to weave the lyrics into the script,” Cioffi says. “And they’re very specific. They explain what is happening on stage at that very moment, and they also foreshadow what will happen in the future.”

Despite heavy doses of Czech and Russian history and philosophical debates over Communism and Marxist theory, Cioffi says, audiences haven’t been intimidated by Rock ‘n’ Roll — in fact, the Huntington extended the show’s run after selling out the original performance dates.

“This play offers a tiny olive branch from our deep past that says, ‘There are rich things that are part of our collective histories, our very souls,’” Cioffi says. “Just because we live in an age of reason doesn’t mean we should turn away from the mysterious. We shouldn’t reduce ourselves to nothing more than biological machines.

“I hope that the audience will come away with a deeper understanding of things that serve us purely,” she adds, “and that’s love and music.”

Rock ’n’ Roll has been extended at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., through Saturday, December 13. Tickets range from $20 to $82.50 and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Patrons age 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID is required), and $5 discounts are available for seniors and military personnel. Student rush tickets are available for $15 at the box office two hours before each performance, and members of the BU community get $10 off (ID is required).

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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