posted by Carey Perloff, A.C.T. Artistic Director
Of the many wild and unexpected things that occurred during our rehearsals of Rock ’n’ Roll (like Russian tanks rolling into South Ossetia claiming “fraternal assistance” on the day we began rehearsals, an eerie echo of the August 21, 1968, Russian occupation of Prague), none was more surreal than going with the cast to Slim’s at midnight on October 9 to hear The Plastic People of the Universe play. I couldn’t even fathom that they were still together—this was the group of “long-haired weirdo hippies” that by bizarre circumstance triggered the trial that humiliated the Czech Communist Party in 1977, and led to the formation of Charter 77. So what the hell were they doing in San Francisco in 2008?
There’s an incredibly moving moment in Rock ’n’ Roll in which Jan tells Nigel that the Plastics are over—they had been asked to compromise one time too many and finally broke apart. Turns out that 20 years later, in 1997, Václav Havel brought the group back together for the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. To add to the string of weird coincidences, my beloved composer friend David Lang told me that when he first visited Prague during the height of the Cold War, the guy who was assigned to shadow him and make sure he behaved was the upright bass player of the Plastics, an intense deep-eyed guy named Ivan! So on October 9, 2008, we find Ivan sitting in the Sky Lobby of A.C.T. at intermission with the rest of the Plastics, selling CDs and posters and stirring up interest for their midnight concert. The aging sax player, Vratislav Brabenec, pulled out a marker and autographed Carly Cioffi, my lovely and intrepid assistant director, right on her chest. The guys hadn’t appeared to have bathed since 1968, and the acrid smell of sweat and cigarettes hung in the air long after Act 2 had begun… we all stared at them in wonder, these crazy guys who had gone to prison for refusing to cut their hair, and caused an entire government to fall. And now they were back in action in the capitalist West, just as Stoppard had predicted at the end of Rock ’n’ Roll. Is this progress? Who knows.
By the time we got to Slim’s, the Plastics were in full force onstage—this crazy fusion band with a sexy young electric bass player and the old violinist and a marginal drummer and the sax player belting out Czech lyrics and scanning the room for cute girls. They were the warm-up act for a really hot band from Budapest who came next… in my complete fog of exhaustion I sat there staring at the stage trying to imagine what these guys had gone through in their lives and what it must’ve felt like to come together all these years later in a radically different world. Tom’s plays always merge reality and fantasy in such porous ways—I knew the Plastics were a real band but somehow in the context of Rock ’n’ Roll they had become a fictionalized force to me, a metaphor—“not heretics, but pagans.” The guy who did the mighty roar that sends Mano dancing across the stage towards Jud in our production was up there in front of us sawing away on his violin. Are the Plastics still pagans? Is it possible to be pagans and sell out a tour in America? Was it worth all the pain and imprisonment and chaos of those years?
Three days after the Plastics, Tom Stoppard arrived to see the show. Sitting next to him in the theater on Saturday night, watching him watch his own creation on the Geary stage, it was as if he had invented a magical historical world in which real historical characters collided with Stoppardian creations in such a seamless way that I was momentarily amazed the Plastics hadn’t recognized Jan and Ferdinand from prison in 1977… when we asked them where they were going next, they said back to Prague—they had a matinee of Rock ’n’ Roll to play on Sunday! Unbelievable.