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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

The title characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard's masterwork of existentialism, are often thought of as resembling the protagonists of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. But to view the Onomatopoeia Theatre Company's production of Stoppard's play, now at the Gene Frankel Theatre, is to trade in Beckett for Lewis Carroll and take an excursion down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, with all of its attendant puns, riddles, twists of logic, word play, and royals who are as threatening as the Queen of Hearts.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, of course, two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet, bit players whom Stoppard has plucked from obscurity to be his stars. Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude and others in the royal court of Denmark pop in and out of the play, crossing paths with the pair from time to time. The central concept is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are all but clueless as to why they have been summoned to Elsinore (By King Claudius? By Shakespeare? By Stoppard?). They believe they have some significant duty to carry out, but whether they have any say in their own destinies is a real conundrum.

The play offers up a serious consideration of questions of self-determination vs. predestination, yet Stoppard's sharp and off-kilter humor shines through repeatedly, arising not from silly tomfoolery but from the very strange situation in which two minor and interchangeable functionaries are unexpectedly thrust into the limelight. It is not Vladimir and Estragon they most resemble, but Tweedledum and Tweedledee, about to be assailed by a monstrous crow, as the spoiler of the play's title brazenly stipulates.

Director Thomas R. Gordon, who also performs as the head of a motley troupe of traveling players serving as a kind of Greek chorus, describes himself in his playbill bio not as an actor, but as a "story teller." That is a very apt way of capturing what the company is aiming for, to captivate us with the story that Stoppard set down. Trust the playwright, they seem to be saying, and join us in exploring the magic contained within his brilliant command of language and mental gymnastics.

Among the eight-member cast, who collaborate beautifully to make this a strong and consistently illuminating ensemble effort, Miranda Jean Larson (officially playing the role of Rosencrantz even when the two characters are unsure themselves as to who is which) and Jocelyn Vammer (Guildenstern) stand out as two wanderers lost in someone else's story and who only occasionally find comfort in each other's company until they meet their ultimate fate.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Through November 21
The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street.
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