Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Also see Susan's review of 13 Rue de l'Amour
Forty years after its premiere, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead retains its ability to amuse and spur thought. For the production now at Washington's Studio Theatre, director Kirk Jackson has brought out the resonances and echoes in Stoppard's language, the existential nothingness of people destined to live their entire lives in the shadow of others.
Don't worry, though. The play has a lot of laughs, many coming from the presentation of easily recognizable moments from Hamlet seen from an unfamiliar perspective, but others rooted in Stoppard's delight in wordplay.
Jackson's direction plays up the obvious influence of Samuel Beckett, specifically Waiting for Godot, on Stoppard's drama. As Beckett created two tramps who wait endlessly for someone they don't know, for reasons they don't understand, Rosencrantz (Raymond Bokhour) and Guildenstern (Liam Craig) hover around the edges of the castle at Elsinore where Hamlet (Marshall Elliot) is wrestling with his fate. They exist in a sort of situational amnesia: they know Hamlet, or do they? They remember a messenger summoning them, they occasionally cross paths with the more august characters, but they never really understand what they're doing or where they are. A running joke is that even they aren't quite sure which one is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern.
As far as casting, Jackson has taken his cue from one of the last lines of the play, which suggests that these two characters have played out their drama many times before and will keep doing so into eternity. To that end, Hamlet is forever the boyish prince, but Rosencrantz (wide-eyed, sweet-faced Bokhour) and Guildenstern (thinner, sharper-eyed Craig) grow older without getting wiser.
Daniel Conway's setting appears at first to be merely a blank exterior wall, but it hides many surprises, including the nature of the title characters' first appearance, assisted by the atmospheric lighting design of Michael Philippi. Alex Jaeger's costumes set the play in more or less the present day: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resemble mid-level bureaucrats in their nondescript shirts, pants and jackets; Queen Gertrude (Maura McGinn) wears a flashy one-shouldered gown; and the troupe of players are punkish except for the flamboyant Player (the reliable Floyd King) and young Alfred (Miles Butler, pleasantly natural no matter how outlandishly he is costumed).