From his perch among the greatest living English-language playwrights, Tom Stoppard sometimes packs more into a scene than audiences can handle.
Take a first-act passage from 2006's Rock 'n' Roll, which Pittsburgh-premieres this week at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. It's 1976 Cambridge, England, and Max, an unreconstructed British Marxist academic, starts off discussing politics with Nigel, a younger journalist. He ends up arguing philosophy with his wife, Eleanor, and a young Czech student named Lenka. With subtexts including Lenka's crush on Max and Eleanor's terminal cancer, the three parse the poetry of Sappho; dispute whether brains are machines; and debate whether cultural revolution has outmoded the to-the-barricades kind.
And we haven't even mentioned references to the play's main character, Jan, a Czech-born graduate student whom the play has already shown returning to his home country in time for the Prague Spring, in 1968; or the Plastic People of the Universe, the far-out (and historically real) Czech rock band who came to epitomize the fight for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. In '76, Jan's in jail for supporting the group -- part of a guerilla culture war that presaged the Curtain's eventual fall, which Stoppard's generation-spanning play also encompasses.
"There's almost too much for an audience," acknowledges PICT artistic director Andrew Paul, who's directing the show.
Still, Paul was drawn to Stoppard's ability to personalize epic politics -- unsurprising, in this case, since the Czech-born Stoppard considers Jan an alternate-universe version of himself, on who repatriated rather than staying in England.
Moreover, Rock 'n' Roll really is about the music. Piped-in tracks from the Plastic People, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and more inspire (and even speak for) the characters -- so much so that the script comes complete with song rights. Characters' record collections regularly figure into the plot. So does a long-haired, flute-playing incarnation of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, whose music is featured and who embodies a vision of the god Pan.
The play culminates with the Stones' 1990 concert at Prague Castle, which symbolized the ascendancy of President Václav Havel, an absurdist playwright and Plastics supporter. (Related PICT programming includes readings of Havel's own works about life under Communism, on May 17 and 24, and a free May 23 panel discussion.) And the show's set, by Narelle Sissons, features an unusually wide, shallow stage, suggesting that a rock show's about to transpire in the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre.
The PICT production of this acclaimed play stars British actor Sam Redford as Jan, Sam Tsoutsouvas as Max, and a top-notch mix of locally based and visiting actors including Simon Bradbury, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Tami Dixon, Martin Giles and Helena Ruoti.
Plus, it's Stoppard (The Real Thing, Arcadia), so besides being heady it's also surpassingly witty. (Max: "I was embarrassed by the '60s. It was like opening the wrong door in a highly specialized brothel.")
Ultimately, Rock 'n' Roll celebrates freedom. "The Plastic People of the Universe ... clearly helped to bring down Communism, because they became symbols," says Paul. "Art really can change the world."
Rock 'n' Roll Thu., May 7-May 30. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. $17-46. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org