Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Review: Rock 'n' Roll

No more mid-week matinées.

You know how we're always hearing about "kids these days" -- they have no respect, they're far too familiar, casual, thoughtless, etc.?

They're not a patch on their grandparents.

I have never experienced a more rude theater audience in my life than the elderly folks in the Jacobs Theatre last Wednesday. I am including high school and junior high theater performances. They wouldn't sit down, shut up or turn off their cell phones. There were two warning tones for the curtain and still they blabbed on, standing in the aisles. The music started and still they bickered about which seat to sit in. The actors began to speak -- in that all important scene that sets up the theme of the entire play -- and still they talked, although they were nearly drowned out by the well-meaning, but endless and loud shushing.

And it was all repeated at the interval. Fortunately the grumbly people right in front of us stalked out then, never to return -- why? Who knows! They were offended by something. The language? The music? Hey, it's called Rock 'n' Roll!

So I'm sure the actors were likewise peeved by this terrible audience. Theater is a symbiosis. The audience, the actors, the crew all work together with the magic of the script to bring something to life for a short time (three hours in this case). When any of them fail, they all suffer. So if the performance fell short of magic, I know where to point the finger.

The cast were excellent. Brian Cox inhabited the gruff Cambridge professor with a mixture of dogged stubbornness and whimsical romance. Sinead Cusack played both Eleanor -- the classics professor with quick wit, slowly defeated by cancer -- and her daughter Esme later in life. While Eleanor is full of authority and confidence (appearing with a tea cosy on her head at one point, but still looking magisterial), Esme wanders uncertain and somewhat wounded -- and with completely different body language. Rufus Sewell takes a break from playing thunderous villains in film to embody Jan, the Czech student in love with rock-n-roll, who can't get interested in politics until his favorite band gets imprisoned. It was uncanny how he reminded me (physically) of Rik Mayall especially as time went on; he became more and more abject as he was beaten down by the increasing political crack-downs.

The story -- like most Stoppard plays -- weaves together a number of themes. Chief of course is the rock-n-roll music, set up in that crucial first scene as the voice of Pan in the modern world. Jan's refusal to engage with the political maelstrom around him rests in his tacit confidence that the music will prove more lasting, that it's more important than the political posturing (a hint perhaps at Stoppard's own apparent political disengagement?). Esme's slow disintegration into despair connects directly to the fate of her personal Pan, the late Syd Barrett. I didn't really know much of Barrett's music, so I was pleasantly surprised (I don't much like Pink Floyd, so I assumed I wouldn't like his solo stuff -- I've been wrong before).

It's hard to convey all the complexities of the play: arguments about whether communism's ideals could ever be realized in the world, whether we are more than the material from which we are made, and when to make a stand against oppressive political forces (and whether the opposition creates the dialectic necessary to keep those forces in power). There was even an extra insert in the Playbill with a précis of Czechoslovakian history, a page on the Plastic People of the Universe and a list of all the music that played between scenes.

Did it work? Well, not entirely. The first act in particular was so episodic that it was impossible to feel close to the characters. The music, which ought to have infused the performance with jangling energy, instead seemed to make the quieter moments feel flat. The second half worked better with fewer breaks and more continuous interaction. Perhaps if the music had been integrated into the action it would have become more of a character itself, embodying that rebellious spirit. But when it comes in at the end for a final moment of triumph, instead the climax feels like a sudden ending without resolution.

Yet less-than-top-notch Stoppard is still head and shoulders above so much else on stage at present. The cast was superb -- I should also mention in particular Alice Eve who played the young Esme and her daughter Alice, moving from sixteen to about thirty in the second act. I enjoyed the performance, even if I would have changed the script and pacing if I could.

At least I kept myself from doing violence to elderly people -- just barely.


The Queen said...

Wow, thanks for the great review! I haven't been to theater in too long!

The cell phone thing is just so out of control- I think they can be wonderful, but I find more & more that our culture of instant gratification & 'me-ness' trumps basically everything else when it come to these devices.

I find it laughable when student staff tell me how stressed out they are when they LITERALLY run outside every 3 minutes to take a call, text message in between & are IMing as well on the desktop in front of them.

Perhaps ten years from now when all the stress catches up, they can text message straight from their pacemakers.

Gene Kannenberg, Jr. said...

Great review! I agree with pretty much everything in it - especially about the audience. I felt really sorry for the actors. And I was just astonished at how rude the audience was. (It wasn't just because it was a "New York audience," either - we've seen plenty of shows in NY where such problems were minor at worst.)

I really don't want to think that the rudeness was only because older people made up most of the audience. But geez, it was the older people who completely caused all of the problems. You might expect that kind of behavior from younger folks who presumably don't know any better, or who have been conditioned by a lifetime of DVD-watching so that they act like they're in their own living rooms. But not from adults whom we are always told grew up with better social skills than "those kids today."

I've heard / seen clueless and rude cellphone users of all ages in other audiences, of course; but the cellphones weren't even the most annoying distraction that day. The people near us who couldn't manage to sit down and shut up can't claim as an excuse that they had a hard time getting to their seats and were running late - they were standing in the aisles right next to their seats for several minutes before the lights went down.

(I hate to harp on this so much, but I've never seen such selfishness in a theater - even in a movie theater.)

The play: As the second act began, I wasn't sure about Sinead Cusack's switch in character to her first-act's character to her now-middle-aged daughter. But that was more my problem than hers, I now think. Her performance completely won me over after just a scene or two.

Just in case you haven't seen / heard it yet, there's a big NPR interview with Stoppard about "Rock 'n' Roll" here.

Thanks again for treating me to this day in NY, Sweetie!

C. Margery Kempe said...

QoE: it's funny, but I've noticed the drop off in emails on weekends from long term lists I'm on. It seems like the novelty is worn off and now it's work. But this has always been the way for younger folks, and they haven't realized they can unplug, I think.

Sweetie: any time!

I thought Cusack was really terrific. She had a lot more to do than Cox who was slowly eroded, but didn't have the same challenges (largely because he played a character oblivious to anything but his own ideals).

Nothing fully engages the senses like good theater!

Chuckie58 said...

You know, just for the barest second I thought your post started with, "No more mid-week martinis."

Funny, that.

C. Margery Kempe said...

LOL -- I don't think you'll hear me saying that any time soon!