Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Hamlet may be among Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, but it also comes with its share of issues that any production needs to face. At the center is Hamlet (Joseph Papke), whose inner conflicts straightjacket him for much of the show. He knows early on that his uncle has killed his father to take the throne, but is unable to act until the very end of the show. Papke embraces these conflicts from the very beginning. While it appears that Hamlet’s madness in the beginning is a ruse to see if he can get at the heart of the plots in Denmark, by midway it seems as if all the various pressures have truly driven him out of his mind. Through it all, Papke remains in control, leaving the scenery unchewed for the most part. That restraint helps to make the character’s conflict and plight all the more real, and the final end all the more heartbreaking.
Papke is surrounded by a number of strong performances, from Jaimi Paige as Ophelia to Maggie Bearmom Pistner as Gertrude, and especially Kevin Carnahan as Polonius, who comes off as a doting father completely out of his depth in dealing with Hamlet and the court.
Directed by Carin Bratlie, this Hamlet is focused more on the tension of the story and Hamlet’s own turmoil than on the pageantry of the court or of Shakespeare’s words. That works in the show’s favor, as it makes the fantastic situation - there is a ghost in the first scene, after all - all the more real. This could have been aided even further by some trimming. At about 3 ½ hours, this production becomes an endurance test by the end, exhausting the audience before they get to the finale.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead takes the situation and gives it a Beckett-like twist. Instead of following the action through the main characters, we are left with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two school friends of Hamlet’s who have been called to court by the new King to determine why Hamlet is acting so strangely, and later, to take him to his doom in England.
Of course, since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are off stage for most of the play, their experiences take a very different shape. Much takes place in an absurdist's “off stage,” where the two spend most of their time trying to work out the key questions in life: Where did we come from and why are we here? Their musings are interrupted by a group of traveling actors who seem to exist in the same off-stage world with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and by the occasional actions of Hamlet, which - in true dream nature - the two seem rather unprepared to participate. (In one wonderful moment, Rosencrantz consults the Cliff Notes of Hamlet to find his lines.)
On stage for the entire show, Edward Linder (as Rosencrantz) and Jonathan Peterson (as Guildenstern) play off each other like a comedy double act that has performed side by side for decades. Their chemistry is essential to the show, and the two have it in spades.
Members of the Hamlet company also get in on the fun, though their interpretations are quite different than in the other, more serious, show. Papke plays Hamlet as completely nuts in this version, while Claudius and the court are presented not so much as royalty as shouting members of a mad military unit.
While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the more successful of the productions, both are worth seeing, especially for some of the neat ties that are crafted between the two (which I won’t spoil here). Either show is quite an undertaking for a small company, so kudos to Theatre Pro Rata for not only tackling both at once, but in succeeding in their goal.
Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead run through October 2 at the Loading Dock Theater in St. Paul. For information, call Theatre Pro Rata at 612-874-9321.