November 11, 2008

Huntington Audiences Rock to Tom Stoppard

Huntington audiences have always had great affection for Tom Stoppard. He's practically family here - nine productions (thus far) over our 27 year history. Packed houses this past weekend speak well of this relationship to Stoppard's work.

My first exposure to Tom Stoppard here at the Huntington was in 1993 with Undiscovered Country. I don't remember too much about the play - perhaps I was distracted at the time by my own explorations of undiscovered country - but in 1996 when we did Arcadia (Photo above) I was astounded that people went nuts for a play about chaos theory. Since then we've done The Real Thing and now Rock 'n' Roll.

Photo (right): Henry (Rufus Collins) a devoted lover of 1960s pop music, enlists wife Charlotte (Meg Gibson) to help him choose records for an appearance on a radio program in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of The Real Thing. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

For those of you who have been coming to the Huntington longer than I - you may recall Night and Day (Photo left) in 1982, On the Razzle in 1986, Jumpers in 1987, and Travesties in 1991. Other Stoppard titles that you may recognize are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love and one of my favorite movies - Shakespeare in Love.

What I enjoy about Stoppard's work is the way it melds an often academic, intellectual and social discussion with a real sense of adventure and interesting human dynamics. The wordplay or verbal wit always adds to the fun.

Are you a Stoppard fan? Why? How do you compare Rock 'n' Roll to other plays that you have seen? What do you think you'll remember about this one?

Is there a song that you associate with a specific political or personal moment from the past? What memories does this music bring back for you? Is there a piece of music that embodies the current political climate?

Please add your thoughts and comments to the discussion

Esme (René Augesen) and Jan (Manoel Felciano) at the momentous Rolling Stones 1990 concert in Prague. Photo: Kevin Berne

The Huntington Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, playing November 7 through December 13, 2008 at the Huntington's mainstage; The Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA, 02115 Buy tickets online or call our Box Office - 617 266-0800


Anonymous said...

I love Tom Stoppard and was thrilled to see his newest play. "The Real Thing" is a favorite of mine - I even love the album that was made of the original Broadway cast (with Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons!). I really enjoyed "Rock n Roll" though I connected more with the personal side of the drama (and the love story) than I did with the politics. And the music was great.

Anonymous said...

sorry, but I'm missing something here. Yes, the set was was also totally underutilized by the director.
Yes, there was interesting historical, political and socially relevant discourse...but the discourse flowed like a textbook timeline. What about action, pathos, CLEAR DEVELOPMENT of characters' relationships, exciting and vibrant theatre?
I missed it.

mike todd said...

We left at intermission. I hope for the people who stayed something came to life.

Todd Williams said...

to any one opinion - a counter:

"Stoppard meticulously yet luxuriously delves through the abundance of plot and character development that stretch over two decades and flit between Prague and Cambridge. What seems unfocused and unimportant in initial scenes becomes touching and richly satisfying as you come to know the characters and see them grow over time, making the nearly three-hour running time worth every minute."


Todd Williams said...

My Google Reader found these thoughts to ponder:

On Saturday, my husband and I went downtown to the Huntington Theater to see Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. The play, which follows the lives of several Czech and English characters from the Prague Spring in 1968 to the Vaclav Havel years, started me thinking about what it means to watch history roll out in real time. Whether it’s through theater or a history book, having the bird’s-eye view enables us to see how all the pieces snap together. Living through events day-by-day often leaves me wondering, “Where did this come from?”

click here to read the rest

Lucy Diamond said...

I had high hopes for this production, as I've loved other Stoppard work (especially Arcadia). Unfortunately, though, I was bored out of my mind. I felt no connection to the characters-- the only character I enjoyed was killed off partway through the first act. The history aspects were not compelling enough for me to get any emotional satisfaction out of the play.

I've never done this before, but I walked out at intermission. Usually, even if a play is boring, I want to stay til the end to have some form of closure, but with the Huntington's production of "Rock and Roll," I just wanted to get out of there.

This is probably not what the Huntington wanted to hear when they sent me an email asking me to post my thoughts on this blog, but this show was a major disappoinment and a huge waste of money and time.

Anonymous said...

Extended? I'm surprised the production schedule wasn't reduced. I loved Stoppard's other works performed at the huntington, but this just had no appeal.

Anonymous said...

My brother and I attended opening night. We felt that the set worked against the play. It was a distraction. We also felt the the play was essentially an unconvincing love story weighted down with polemic. The acting was competent but uninspired. It certainly did nothing to overcome the play's short comings like plot and convincing relationships. At times I felt sorry for the actors having to be in this disappointing play. At other times I felt that they agreed to be it it, they should have taken some risks, attempted to provide performances that created an uneasiness or some kind of response other then boredom. The only actor that came close was the woman who played the wife/daughter. It was a bourgeois evening. Theater needs to be better then what one can find on T. RAPORTER1950

Anonymous said...

Love most Stoppard and will head for NYC whenever a new one opens there. The acting in the Huntington production was nowhere near as strong as the New York cast. This was especially true of the dying mother. The Boston set was all right but the NY set flashed the names of the songs and the performers, which helped tie together the music with the story line. That said, seeing it for the second time made much of what I had lost in NY more understandable. Sometimes Stoppard needs to be seen multiple times for full understanding. Keep 'em coming.

Heather said...

It's a relief to read that other people had the urge to leave the play part way through. I only stayed after intermission because my theater date, my grandfather, was reveling in the nostalgia. On the night that I attended, two of the lead roles were played by under-studies. The result was as clunky as a high school musical. At least it doesn't seem like I missed out by not having seen the first-stringers. This production was a huge let-down. However, the occasional let-down is the lot of the avid theater-goer! In my book, the Huntington is down for one huge win (How Shakespeare Won the West) and one loss (Rock 'n Roll) this season.

Anonymous said...

As a subscriber for over 18 years this year has been abysmal and Shakespeare, Bolero and Rock and Roll are three strikes for us.

Anonymous said...

See what Carolyn Clay of the Boston Phoenix has to say here

King Kong said...

In something like 20 years of regular Huntington attendance, we've only walked out at intermission twice. This was the second time. The first time was Stoppard's Travesties. Rock 'n Roll mostly seemed like a waste of great set design and excellent acting on a terrible script. Arcadia and Rosencrantz are favorites, so it's nothing against the playwright, but when he decides to go deep into political thought, well, I guess it isn't the kind of theater that appeals to us.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, We left at intermission after my wife slept through much of it and I was bored. This was the only Huntington show that we have walked out on early in 20+/- years as subscribers. I hope others enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Wish I had thought about leaving at intermission but I saw it through to the end...I believe I was the first person out the door. I agree with everything said about how wonderful Stoppard's plays usually are (loved the The Real Thing), but this was like sitting through a boring history class. I didn't expect to be going to school on a Friday night. And there was very skant rock and roll! I was expecting more music from the title. What love story...really. I would like to know. I was shocked to hear it was extended and, until now, thought there was something wrong with me. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

A very dull play-too much political rhetoric,not enough witty and sophisticated Stoppard dialogue, characters you didn't care for, an unconvincing love story, what was the Sappho translation business all about? I would have walked out at intermission if it hadn't been for the scene where the professor's wife talked about her impending death and her husband's sterile view of love.

Anonymous said...

In 30+ years of attending theatre performances, this is the first time I left at intermission. The only character that was a character rather than a talking head died in the first act and I couldn't find anything else to hold my interest. I also attend lectures on a wide range of subjects and this was too disjointed for me to follow.

Anonymous said...

I loved this play! Stoppard is intense and the actors superb. Having been in high school, then college during the years depicted in the first half, I really connected with the music and politics discussed. Could it be that some of the previous commenters were bored because they could not follow the play? Or perhaps they need action that is more "in your face", like you see on television. As for myself, I did not notice the time go by.

Kate said...

Tom Stoppard's play was great. As far as the performance - well, I wish the characters were alive. In my opinion, aside from René Augesen (whose work was believable and overall brought the performance to the next level)- the actor's work was a disappointment. Max doesn't move his hands throughout the performance, even when he is supposedly in rage, and that is just one example. My conclusion : mixed feelings. I think that the performance didn't do this great play justice.

Anonymous said...

I was bored and embarrassed that i dragged my family to this production.I saw the play in London several years ago and LOVED it...a much more exciting, well acted play, I cared about the characters and their struggles, political and personal.
I wish I had left at intermission.

Janet said...

I love Stoppard and Arcadia is one of my all time favorite plays (I've seen it 3 times now and it just keeps getting better.)

I was very disappointed with Rock n Roll. The intellectual/Marxist part and the Chezch history was boring and not well integrated with the English part and love story. (My Soviet studies professorial friend says we in America were just never intellectually/spiritually into Marxism like the Europeans were, so that could be part of it.)

Also, alot of the actors swallowed their lines; consequently, there was much I couldn't even interpret. (I'm interested enough in Stoppard that I plan to read the play script.) but I do think this play is inferior to Arcadia and The Real Thing.

In addition, I heard from my sister-in-law who saw it with me that the London production was much more powerful with louder/more present rock music. This production lowballed the Rock music.

Anonymous said...

My lady friend couldn't wait to see Rock 'n Roll because she loves Stoppard's work. She slept through the first act and we left at intermission. I taught High school from '65 to '98 and tired of all the huff and puff along with the crummy music.

Anonymous said...

Stoppard for me has always been a challenging playwright. Perhaps as it should be - a playwright who forces us to look at the world differently.

Those challenges, as well as the acting (which is personal opinion) I see has caused several here to walk out at intermission.

Stoppard's work is dense. His more recent plays less so, but his work more than others really places demands on a theater's dramaturg to produce outstanding program notes. While we don't need a crash course in philosophy or Dadaism (as in other Stoppard works), the audience might benefit from more detail on Marxism and the Prague Spring in the program for this production. Think about what Benjamin Zander does with his pre-performance lectures for the Boston Philharmonic. Knowing what's going on doesn't detract from the performance at hand - it can enhance it.

Anonymous said...

wow , i must have seen a different show than most of these folks... i thought rock n roll was a great play and this cast did a very good job... yes i am a huge stoppard fan but have found some usa productions to lack a bit.. but not this one... all of our lives are a mix between politics and the music of the time that surrounds us... and this captured an interseting period of european history. he writes some of the best dialoge on the stage today... to the other posters who didn't like this play/production... be humbug

Elizabeth said...

I'm sorry for the folks who walked out at intermission--like many of Stoppard's plays, the threads drawn out in the first act are woven together in the second. After enjoying, but not really connecting with Indian Ink, Invention of Love and Utopia, I was very excited to find Stoppard really expanding the female roles in this show and creating some very engaging characters. I do agree that the Sappho and Pan themes were less well-woven into the plot than in earlier works; I'm looking forward to reading the script to see if the connections were lost from page to stage.

I would have to agree that the backdrop set felt under-utilized and mostly irrelevant to the action, as if the designer just couldn't figure out a way to really make use of the space. It reminded me of The Real Thing in this way.

René Augesen was fantastic as Eleanor. She was actively painful to watch in her anger and fear of dying and losing her self. And Manolo Felciano is always a sympathetic, engaging actor and I really enjoyed his use of body language to communicate the changes to Jan throughout the play. I was disappointed in some of the other actors, particularly Summer Serafin, whose weakness undermined the central love story.

Overall, I really enjoyed the show and it brought me to laughter, tears and a different understanding of the historical forces and periods. I appreciate the Huntington bringing Stoppard's work to Boston.

Fayerweather said...

It's been a couple of weeks since my wife and I attended this play. I'm glad to say that I've gotten over my disappointment. I had liked some of Stoppard's previous work and the hype from the Huntington gave me high expectations. In the event, I thought it didactic, slow-moving, witty sometimes but never deep or perceptive. So how come the play's run is being extended when many seats were empty at the performance we saw? I can only conclude that the Huntington would otherwise have been dark and something is better than nothing. But in this case, I'm not sure.

Ricardo said...

I wanted to share a review I wrote:

Great Pan is Dead
Ricardo Sedan

Tom Stoppard could not have known that Syd Barrett would die just one month after his new play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, premiered in London in June, 2006. But the play is imbued with Barrett’s persona. It opens with Syd Barrett singing from atop a garden wall in 1968 Cambridge, England. He is dubbed “Great Pan”, or “The Piper”. Near the end of the play, a student and teacher read Plutarch aloud near the wings of the stage: “… tell them that Great Pan is dead.” In between are numerous allusions to Barrett’s music, his career, and his madness.

It would be tempting, then, to say that Rock ‘n’ Roll is an ode to Barrett. But the work is not nearly as easy to summarize. It is nominally about rock music, its role in dissent, and the fight between freedom and oppression in Soviet-invaded Czechoslovakia. Spanning two decades, it also tries to be a story about the disillusion with one’s political ideals, the mind-body problem, love lost and regained, coming of age… You get the idea.

Though incisive and entertaining, the play is too ambitious. Rushing through 22 years in less than three hours, it can only give us glimpses of its subject matter. These glimpses are frequently sharp, and stunningly written and acted, but one leaves the theatre wishing for a closer look. That is, after the loud Rolling Stones music is no longer stuck in one’s head.

Jan, (Manoel Felciano) is a Philosophy scholar at Cambridge University, and has the distinction of wanting to move back to Prague when the Soviet tanks roll in. All he takes with him is his record collection. During the first act, communism, oppression and dissent all happen around him while he sits in his living room listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll. He enjoys rebellion vicariously through his friend Ferdinand (Jud Williford) and through the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe. Given his frustrating inaction, his character is surprisingly likable. I found his way of speaking annoying until I realized that he speaks exactly like a Czech friend I have; thereafter I was charmed.

It is René Augesen, however, whose performance shines. Back in Cambridge, she plays Eleanor, who is dying of cancer, losing her body bit by bit (she enumerates the parts she has lost in a powerful scene), and is trying hard to hold on to her soul. Unfortunately, her husband Max (Jack Willis), an old disillusioned communist and Jan’s mentor, is adamant about rejecting the soul. Mind and body are one. Lose your body and you lose it all. And lose it she does.

In the second act, ten years later, Augusen plays grown-up Esme. When we see her and an older Jan, we realize we have been watching a love story all along: Young lovers reunite as old lovers. Around them the oppressive regime in Czechoslovakia is dissolving. In the words of Jan, “Life has become amazing.”

Sadly, we do not get to witness this “amazing life.” Much of the action is narrated, not shown. I liked Rock ‘n’ Roll in retrospect. But while I was watching I was grasping and struggling to digest it all.

What to make of that Piper? Syd Barrett is a symbol of young playfulness; of the rebellious soul. By the end, he has gone mad, but is still publishing music. A dead character is still present through the actress who played her. Disciples become teachers. Jan’s records are destroyed, but are replaced by live music. Communism is dead, but the people survive. The soul does persist.

Syd Barrett ignites a life, a relationship, a story. He is gone, but they are still buying his records. And living, and loving. Great Pan lives.

John Melithoniotes said...

We like Tom Stoppard, and of course we like the Huntington, but this play was tedious. I did enjoy Jack Willis's character Max, and the vicious atmosphere of academic life was nicely portrayed.

But for me the play was well crafted...and dull. Cutting out 45 minutes would help. Maybe 60 minutes.

Can the Huntington actually build an audience with plays such as this and the first play of the season, that turkey about Shakespeare and the West?

Charlie Morgan said...

[Todd--I hope this remarks won't need moderation or censureship.]

At first I was amazed at the critiques leveled here at the play and performance (my wife and I enjoyed it immensely, and a colleague to whom we recommended it went twice), but I also remember looking around the theater and wondering what the average age of the theater-goers was.

I'm an early baby-boomer, but many in the theater seemed pre-baby boom (pre-1950 at least) and looked bored as if they were hoping for yet another helping of Hedda Gabler or Lear or My Town.

Granted Stoppard is in his 60s too, but perhaps it is age and social class that posed some barrier to enjoyment. I'm not sure-- it would be interesting to know how many people either recognized the rock n roll songs playing and/or whether any were anthems to any of the audience.

In short, where are the 'young' folks (I mean under 60). Sure, I could fault the production which at times lacked passion, and it did take time for the characters to grow on me, and there was an absence of naturalism in some of the bombastic acting--- the acting would have needed to be tightened up for Broadway-- but it was still professional, and at half the price of a broadway show, it was priceless in its own way.

I just subscribed to the Huntington on the basis of seeing Rock n Roll, but I hope the daring of the Stoppards, the Mamets, the Shepherds, and their best offspring and exemplars, will infuse the theater with exuberance and creativity.

As much as I'm looking forward to such standard fare as 'The Corn is Green', a season without more rock 'n' rolling productions would be dreary indeed.

Charlie Morgan

Todd Williams said...

Hi Charlie,

Thank you for adding to the conversation.

I am thrilled that so many have taken time to respond, regardless of their opinion, and I wanted to respond generally to your note about moderating and censuring. Please visit

I also liked you question about age - 75% of our subscribers and 2/3 of our single ticket buyers are over age 50. Market research shows that people of all ages attend arts events yet focus groups indicate that younger audiences are more likely to attend concerts and the larger tours - such as Wicked or Spamalot rather than our kind of theatre. While parking is an issue for all - younger people list barriers such as family obligations and lack of publicity and information to attendance.

Our program of offering $25 tickets to people under 35 has been successful in growing this demographic. What else do you, our readers, think we could do to encourage younger audiences to attend the Huntington's shows and is that something you think we should be doing?