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A CurtainUp Review
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet in Repertory
Rosencrantz. . . by Elyse Sommer and Hamlet by Jacob Horn

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead Review | Hamlet Review | Production Notes

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead Review
Where is it going to end"— Guildenstern
That is the question!" —Rosencrantz
It's all questions.—Guildenstern

Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Ian Gould in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (Photo by Michael Lamont)
In a season when in repertory productions, have added a special kind of sizzle to the New York theater season, the Acting Company has added its own smart double pleasure contribution by pairing Shakespeare's Hamlet with Tom Stoppard's clever meta theatrical spinoff Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It's a wonderful opportunity not just see the company's take on Shakespeare's much produced classic but Stoppard's still fiendishly wicked but less frequently produced early play.

What's more, audiences will have a chance for a first-hand view of two characters from another play who influenced Stoppard's vision of Shakespeare's clueless, seekers for who and what they're all about. I'm referring of course, to Vladimir and Estrogen from Beckett's Waiting For Godot, the other half another terrific in-rep production currently on Broadway. (
No Man's Land & Waiting for Godot)

I've only seen Stoppard's buffoonish supernumeraries-cum-stars taking over from the melancholy Dane to explore the what-it's all about and to-be-or-not-to-be questions only once before. That was more than a dozen years ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with Christopher Even Welch and Jefferson Mays, two then unknowns who went on to illustrious on and off Broadway careers. (Welch, unfortunately died too young earlier this year, but Mays is currently enjoying a bravura turn on Broadway in The Genleman's Guide to Love and Murder ). Fortunately, the Acting Company's staging by Neil Patel is once again presented in a small theater allowing a blend of simple, chamber concert staging to also serve the Bard's tragedy but with enough visual splendor via Candice Donnelly's costumes and Greg Goff's lighting.

Ian Gould and Grant Fletcher Prewitt bring an undeniable chemistry to mix of the count-counterpoint optimism-pessimism of the unheroic duo. Having recently seen Ian McKellum and Patrick Stewart play Vladimir and Estrogen's penchant for Abbott and Costello-like comic business to the hilt, Gould and Prewitt's kinship to Beckett's characters is even clearer than it was in my first viewing. From the playful coin-tossing opening to their reflections on death (Rosencrantz's observation that "Life in a box is better than no life at all") to Guildenstern's final pensive "There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said o. But somehow we missed it."

As Vladimir and Estrogen' lonely vigil is several times interrupted by the appearance of Pozo and the unlucky Lucky, so the lost, bothered and bewildered messengers from the Denmark are frequently visited a Player (Darien Battle) and a group of Tragedians — and eventually, the Danish kingdom's characters, who will naturally assume top dog positions during the Hamlet performances. Actually, Hamlet's wordless delivery of some of Shakespeare's most memorable quotes is a comic highlight here.

John Rando, a director who knows how to keep a play, even one with this much dialogue (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is just the first in Stoppard's prolific and distinguished output of rich in philosophical quandaries and word play dramas), pulsing along. He maintains a fine balance between R and G's befuddled interplay and the Player and company's sassy Elsinore smashing and finishes things off with an eye-popping concluding image.

The original three acts are conflated to work with just one intermission, which tightens the running time. However, good as the actors are, both with the verbal and mimed interchanges, permission by Sir Stoppard for some additional streamlining would enhance rather than diminish the enduring cleverness and enjoyment of this brilliant spoof. But I may be quibbling. This is a rare opportunity to see this early incarnation of one of the contemporary theater's most razzle-dazzle intellects.

To find out more about Stoppard and other plays we've reviewed, check out our Stoppard Backgrounder

Hamlet Review
Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.— Polonius
John Skelley with Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Ian Gould in Hamlet. (Photo by Michael Lamont)
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most formidable works, if not on its own merits, then certainly in its reception. This is the play, after all, that gave us the "To be or not to be..." soliloquy, one of the most recognizable and well-known dramatic texts in the English language. The expectations may, thus, be high, but The Acting Company's performance of Hamlet is able to rise to the occasion, driven by an insightful performance from John Skelley in the title role and greatly enhanced by its pairing with Tom Stoppard's play.

The Bard is having quite a winter here in New York, and one might say that throwing another Shakespearean tragedy (not to mention another in repertory pairing) into the mix is a gutsy move. This teaching company's Hamlet doesn't feature Hollywood talent; nor does it have the budget for finely polished set pieces and elaborate environmental effects.

What this production does have is a thoughtful take on a classic play from director Ian Belknap, solid acting talent to support the director's vision, and, above all else, a deeply interesting pairing with its metatheatrical complement, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. TAC's Hamlet will best be appreciated in concert with Stoppard's play, but it stands on its own as well.

The most interesting feature of this production may be how whimsical it is — presumably the effect of being staged jointly with a comedy (albeit a tragic one)— without ever descending into flippancy. Levity marks a number of moments in the play, and it seems strangely appropriate here. That might alarm some purists, but for many audience members who probably have some familiarity with the story, it's an interesting take.

In fact, even though Hamlet is a tragedy and R&G a dark comedy, the tones of the two plays as staged here are harmonious. They achieve a symbiosis of sorts: the tragedy accentuates the darkest moments of the comedy, and the comedy illuminates the humor within the tragedy.

Where this may be most apparent within Hamlet is in the depiction of the Prince himself. Skelley portrays a Hamlet wavering between moments of confident assurance and those of utter confusion and dismay. His situation is truly miserable from the moment the play begins, but Claudius (Patrick Lane) is ready to make things worse, finding ways to force everyone at Elsinore into the cause.

The tension between the two is often layered. In their interactions you can almost see traces of a Looney Tunes rivalry, but you remain keenly aware that, all joking aside, Wiley E. Coyote is ultimately out to kill the Roadrunner. Meanwhile, when Ophelia (Angela Janas) has her own moment of madness, her makeup is reminiscent of a clown. Again and again, we are reminded that the line between tragedy and comedy is hardly as clear as it seems.

There's enough to be enjoyed within TAC's Hamlet even if you don't see their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though, if you can only catch one, the less-frequently-staged R&G may be the more unique option) — but the rewards of coupling the two are far greater. You'll not only be entertained, but you'll also have a unique perspective on both plays that can only come from the rare opportunity of experiencing these two timeless masterpieces by two wonderful playwrights together.

Production Notes
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern by Tom Stoppard
Directed by John Rando
Cast (in order of appearance: Ian Gould (Guildenstern), Grant Fletcher Prewitt (Rosencrantz),Joshua Johnston (Alfred/Captain), Darien Battle (The Player), Robert David Grant (Tragedian/ Gueard/Laertes),Ernest Bentley (Claudius/Pirate), Patrick Lane (Claudius/Pirate), Andy Nogasky (Polonius/Pirate),Angela Janas (Ophelia/Pirate), John Skelley (Hamlet), Jacqueline Correa (Gertrude/Pirate), Suzy Kohane (Tragedian/English Ambassador)
From 1/09/14; opening 1/12/14; closing 2/01/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on January 12th.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ian Belknap
Cast (Order of Appearance): Joshua Johnston (Francisco/Player/Osric),Ian Gould (Bernardo/Guildenstern/First Gravedigger), Ernest Bentley (Horatio), Grant Fletcher Prewitt (Marcellus/Rosencrantz/Gravedigger), Patrick Lane (Claudius), Robert David Grant (Laertes/Ghost),Andy Nogasky (Polonius), John Skelley (Hamlet), Jacqueline Correa (Gertrude), Angela Janas (Ophelia), Darien Battle (Player King/Fortinbras/Priest),Suzy Kohane (Player Queen/Female Attendant)
From 1/09/14; closing 2/01/14; opening 1/15/14
Reviewed By Jacob Horn January 14th.

Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Candice Donnelly
Lighting Design: Greg Goff
Music and Sound Design: Michael Kiley
Voice and Speech Consultant: Elizabeth Smith
Fight Direction Felix Ivanoff
Property Master: Faye Armon-Troncoso
Stage Manager: Gina Noele Odierno
Running Time (both plays): 2 hours and 30 minutes including 1 intermission
The Acting Company in association with the Guthrie Theatre at the Pearl Theater's space at 555 W.42nd Street -- and continuing to tour various cities. Check the company website for performance and touring details:
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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet - Stoppard and Shakespeare in repertory by the Acting Company. . . Read More