Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are ...
Stoppard's play is a variation on Shakespeare's Hamlet as told from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters with precious little stage time in the Shakespeare. They are two school friends of Hamlet who are called to Elsinore by Claudius, and asked to ascertain the reason for the Prince's foul moods and report their findings to him. In the Stoppard, they are mostly ignored, and neither understands the momentous events in which they have become involved. As in Hamlet, after the death of Polonius, they are asked to accompany the exiled Hamlet by sea to England, and given a sealed letter to convey to the King of England, in which Claudius asks that Hamlet be executed. Hamlet discovers the letter, and substitutes a forgery in which Claudius asks the King of England to execute the bearers of the letter. As both plays draw to a close, the English ambassador arrives at Elsinore, and observes:
The sight is dismal;
This is one of a handful of occasions when Stoppard borrows line by line from Shakespeare as the plays overlap. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are cousins to Estragon and Vladimir, who engage in witty, dead-end speculations/routines to pass the time while Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not only unable to control their own lives, they do not even begin to understand what is happening to them. They sense their inevitable deaths are close at hand. Yet none of this in any manner dampens our ability to laugh heartily throughout the first two acts of Paul Mullin's production. However, when their melancholy can no longer be held at bay as they begin to fade into darkness in the third act, it is hard to reconcile the desperate tone with all the earlier high spirits. As with several of Shakespeare's plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might well be described as a "problem comedy."
The brilliance of Tom Stoppard is undeniable. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ... burst upon the theatre scene in London and New York almost forty years ago like a breath of fresh air and instantly established Stoppard as a modern genius of the theatre. Still, the rapid fire, intricate wordplay, and philosophic and idea laden dialogue are not easily absorbed at first hearing. Reading the play text before seeing this production, would likely enhance enjoyment of it.
Sean Mahan (Rosencrantz) and David Conrad (Guildenstern) display excellent comic timing, playing off one another as the not quite interchangeable title duo, who, in a running gag, cannot be told apart by anyone in the play, including, at times, themselves. It seems that Guildenstern is the more inclined to optimism, and Rosencrantz to cynicism. Or is it the other way around? What is clear is that both actors deliver their dense but witty dialogue with maximal lucidity and liveliness. The Player (leader and spokesman for the theatre troupe which enacts The Murder of Gonzago at Hamlet's request) is aggressively opportunistic, but, as performed with zest and a mischievous gleam in his eye by Andrew Weems, is a delight. A major Player here, Weems jousts with Mahan and Conrad and, along with them, delivers the sparkling vaudevillian humor of the play.
The major roles in Hamlet – including Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius and Polonius - are smaller supporting ones here, and all are well played.
Director Paul Mullins maintains the high standard of his recent work for the Shakespeare Theatre. He has devised complex physical bits which complement and enhance the text. For instance, at the outset, when Guildenstern tosses one coin after another, the physical playing of each and every toss (and catch by Rosencrantz) is different from the proceeding ones. Furthermore, with the assistance of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and lighting designer Shelly Sabel, Mullins has used a stage as his very setting. This has been accomplished by employing an elevated, rectangular stage that is built into the auditorium well beyond the proscenium, and lining the front and rear with faux candled footlights. Wisely, given the current climate, Mullins has cast the role of Alfred, the cross-dressing child actor, with an adult, and downplayed the idea of The Player's proffer of him to the title duo as a source of humor.
For almost three hours a night, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and well, very well indeed, on the stage of New Jersey's Shakespeare Theatre.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m./ Sat. 2 p.m. & 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. (no eve. perf. 6/25) through June 25 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (on the Drew University campus), 36 Madison Avenue, Madison Avenue (Route 124), Madison, NJ, 07940; box office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard