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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
By Elyse Sommer
"The only beginning is birth and the only end is death. If you can't count on that, what can you count on?"
"Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?"
Comments and questions bouncing back and forth like tennis balls! A stage empty except for two well-worn suitcases! Two men in black from hat to toe!
No, these are not Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon in some madcap Elizabethean spoof, but British playwright Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz ad Guildenstern. But wait a minute . . . aren't Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the two courtier-spies in Hamlet -- the ones whose fateful trip to England is polished off with a single line in the fifth act: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?" Yes, and no. You see, Stoppard appropriated these minor characters and with sleight-of-writing ingenuity put them front and center, transforming the main players into satellites orbiting around the minor characters. Obviously, he also borrowed that fifth act line for his title.
Reviving this thirty-three-year-old Tony-award winning coup-de-spoof is something of a sleight-of-programming savvy since Gwyneth Paltrow, the Juliet of Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love, will soon star on the Main Stage in As You Like It. And, as all who see this revival will recognize, the 1967s stage play and the 1999 Oscar-winning blockbuster film have much in common. In both cases, Stoppard wandered behind the scenes of a Shakespearean play to create another parallel drama which in turn sheds new light on its source.
To make the most of this synergy between what looks like the centerpiece of the summer '99 WTF season, (As You Like It tickets were sold out even before the box office was officially open), we have Darko Tresnjak at the helm. Best known for his work as an opera director, Tresnjak might seem an unlikely choice for a play which despite a cast of eighteen, has three actors carrying the weight of its wit. As it turns out Mr. Tresnjak has pulled off his own bit of magic with a dazzling production: Its crown jewels , a trio of comic heavy weights -- Christopher Evan Welch, Jefferson Mays and Richard Kind; its staging a blend of chamber concert simplicity with the visual splendor befitting one of the director's operas. What might get lost in the large Adams Memorial Theater is right at home in the 99-seat house, filling the stage but never crowding it -- seamlessly framing the play's raison d'être, the tension between what is center stage and what is offstage.
The sense of having stumbled into an Elizabethean version of Waiting For Godot begins as you enter the theater and see the two well-worn suitcases on the otherwise bare black stage. A triptych with shadows of trees behind scrim shades are the only hint of more elaborate stagecraft to come.
The certainty that with Welch (Rosencrantz ) and Mays (Guildenstein) these two Shakespearian buffoons are in the hands of two masters of comic timing begins with the first of their many games -- a coin toss accompanied mainly by "heads" from Rosencrantz and a cornucopia of physical gestures and expressions from both. But this is not a mime show The physical bravura of the performances retains its high octane even when physical games give way to the cryptic conversations during in which these two unheroic "stars" discuss their own fates and their lack of heroic stature.
The turnaround fun escalates as R & G's dialogue is interspersed with snatches of the play from which they've metamorphosed. The scrims rise on figures first seen as silhouettes on the elevated stage rear. We hear snatches of Shakespeare's dialogue, and catch glimpses of famous scenes . The great tragedy is seen just a few moments at a time -- through the eyes of Stoppard's audaciously re-invented Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who invevitably and hilariously miss its point lost as they are in their own sense of self-importance. (To Guildenstern Hamlet is simply "a man who talks to himself." Rosencrantz dismisses him with "Half of what he said didn't mean anything. What we learn is that he's depressed!"). Their frozen in motion poses each time the "real" players come on stage are priceless.
Some of the funniest moments come from the interaction with Hamlet -- as when Guildenstern ponders "Where is it going to end" and Hamlet (David Hornsby) slyly countering "Ah, that is the question!") The group of actors who come upon the dopey duo and are led by a man known only as The Player (Richard Kind). He too adds much dramatic panache and some terrific lines; for example his description of the actor's role in the scheme of things: "You don't understand the humiliation of it -- to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable- that somebody is watching! Don't you see? We're actors. We're the opposite of people!"
In a spoof on a play rife with murder and death wishes, death is unsurprisingly everywhere. From Guildenstern we have "The only beginning is birth and the only end is death- if you can't count on that, what can you count on?" Rosencrantz, contemplating his burial philosphizes that "life in a box is better than no life at all" even though he's also declared the thought of eternity as terrible. As for The Player, "Death is what actors do best." Death also figures in some stunning visual imagery, as the scene when R&G kneel, their heads face down on the suitcases as if on a guillotine.
The production values overall are spectacularly on the mark. Designer Takeshi Kata's use of shadow figures, smartly lit by Christopher J. Landy, adds great visual impact, especially since the device is used with the right degree of restraint. Linda Cho's costumes are both apt and amusing.
Do you need to be well-acquainted with Hamlet to enjoy this Hamlet inspired comedy? No, but it may prompt you to read it or catch the next available performance. Does the Beckettian absurdism make Rosencrantz ad Guildenstern Are Dead inaccessible to all but the most seasoned theater aficionados? If you agree with Rosencrantz that a good story should have "a beginning, middle and end" you may find yourself also wondering as Rosencrantz often does, "What's it all about?" But non-linear plays that challenge your intellect and sense of humor often turn out to be remarkably accessible, as is the case here. No sooner do the lights flicker for you to return to your seat from the first intermission, than everything falls into place.
I hope Stoppard or someone is writing a comedy in which Welch and Mays can reprise the comic teamwork displayed here.
For another Shakespeare inspired Berkshire offering currently on the boards, see our review of Love's Fire
For reviews of previous shows featuring Christopher "Rosencrantz" Welch, see Scapin and Arms and the man.