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Theater review: Rock 'n' Roll 

Like the music itself, Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll is many things: a play about history, a play about political systems, a play about love — and yes, a play about the role of rock in all of these. At its core, the story is about the unlikely friendship between two very different men. Cambridge professor Max Morrow likes to think of himself as the last true Marxist in England, even as Communism is crumbling on the fringes of the Iron Curtain, and his beliefs are still so fervid that his temper flares when they are challenged or ridiculed. Max and his daughter Esme both stir deep feelings in Jan, a Czech exchange student who believes passionately in the transformative power of rock.

Jan resonates to the spirit of freedom he hears in rock — particularly the music of Plastic People of the Universe, which he sees as playing a seminal role in Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. It does take awhile. Both Jan and Max shuttle back and forth between Cambridge and Prague from 1968 to 1991, with the years between Jan's discovery of the Plastics in 1976 and the end of Communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 covering a little more than half that span.

With its multiple disputations on the viability of Marxism and the primacy of pop culture, Rock 'n' Roll is often a pretentious pill to swallow. Even when it explicitly rocks between scenes, there are slide projections flanking the stage documenting each song with title, date, album, and performer, lending a slightly donnish, lecture-hall quality to the narrative flow. Truth is, Jan can also seem fairly nerdy, scrutinizing his albums' liner notes or drooling over his latest acquisition.

So director Simon Donoghue and Belmont Community Theatre can be applauded for having the guts to bring such sinewy, secular fare to Belmont Abbey College. Nor is Donoghue mollycoddling his actors any more than his audience. They gallop along at a dizzying pace, clocking in at 2:07 plus intermission. That's actually a swifter time than the Broadway production I saw in January 2007.

The director's son, Christopher Donoghue, is obviously the thoroughbred in the cast as Jan, coping beautifully with the rapidfire pace, though not without the occasional hiccup. He's more age-appropriate than 40-year-old Rufus Sewell was in the Broadway production, and he amps up the difficulty of the role, speaking naturally in Prague and layering on a Czech accent at Cambridge. Warren English and Millie English, husband and wife in real life, have more difficulties with the pacing as Max and his wife Eleanor. The old prof gets derailed oftener, but that's better than the toll paid by Eleanor — and later on, when Millie comes back as Esme — who sacrifices volume for pacing.

It's a big cast, with less doubling than on Broadway, as befits a community effort. But young Donoghue isn't the only standout. There's fine work from Annamarie Gatto as Lenka, a philology student who brings romance to both Max and Jan, and Sarah Wykowski doubles charmingly as Young Esme and later as her daughter Alice. Bob Sweeten credibly instills fear in Jan as the Interrogator, and Troy Feay throws sharp cerebral jabs as Ferdinand, Jan's activist friend.

Quite frankly, Rock 'n' Roll was easier to follow in my second go-round with it. Recurring motifs begin to stand out. On the surface, teacher-student relationships become as pervasive as romantic ties. But on a deeper level, talk and theory eventually give way to instinct and emotion, echoing the triumph of rock over the Soviet bloc — signaled decisively when the Stones played in Vaclav Havel's new Czech Republic.

It's only rock 'n' roll, but they liked it.

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