Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Huntington Theatre Company
Review by Nancy Grossman | Season Schedule (new)

Alex Hurt and Jeremy Webb
Photo by T Charles Erickson
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, but it takes a long time for them (and us) to reach the dénouement. Playwright and wordsmith Tom Stoppard's Tony Award-winning three-act play takes the two minor characters from William Shakespeare's Hamlet and puts them front and center. As men with no control over their destiny, Stoppard uses their status as pawns to examine fate and ask if we can ever really know what's going on. That's only one of the many questions the title characters ask, and they rarely find any definitive answers. In the face of absurd situations and existential angst, and the disruption of the laws of probability, the one certainty that remains is death.

Huntington Theatre Company's Artistic Director Peter DuBois directs a stellar cast in a solid production designed by a Broadway creative team. Three actors with Broadway credits, Jeremy Webb (Guildenstern), Alex Hurt (Rosencrantz), and Brian Lee Huynh (Hamlet), are joined by a roster of Boston actors playing Claudius, the King of Denmark (Ed Hoopman), Gertrude (Melinda Lopez), Polonius (Ken Cheeseman), and Member of the Court (Kadahj Bennett). A troupe of locals also play the Tragedians (Laura Latreille, Zaven Ovian, Marc Pierre, Dale Place, Omar Robinson, Michael Underhill) and Player, their leader (Will LeBow). New York-based Winchester native Meghan Leathers plays Ophelia.

Webb and Hurt perform as two sides of one coin, the synergy between them so potent that it lends authenticity to the concept of the King and Queen finding it difficult to distinguish between the pair, and their own inability, at times, to recall who is who, and they radiate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's feelings of friendship. While both convey their naiveté, Webb's Guildenstern is also optimistic that things will work out, while Hurt's Rosencrantz is more likely to brood and be fearful or sad. And just when you think you know who is who and what their characteristics are, the actors are likely to switch off and play the emotions of the other. This is more or less apropos of the play as a whole, as it seems to be Stoppard's wont to confuse the audience in sympathy with the two courtiers.

Familiarity with Hamlet will enhance and clarify one's experience with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, although it is not required. The Huntington's program contains a brief overview which lays out the scenes from Shakespeare's play which precede the action in Stoppard's, as well as the scenes which are interwoven into the latter's plot. In a nutshell, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are former schoolmates of Hamlet who are summonsed by Claudius to try to find out what's wrong with the sullen prince. (Umm, perhaps he's mourning his late father who was murdered by Claudius so that he could marry Gertrude and take over the throne?) When Claudius gets wind of Hamlet's intent to seek revenge, after a performance by the Tragedians, he requests that the friends accompany Hamlet to England and carry a letter to the King which is, in effect, a death sentence for the prince. Unbeknownst to them, Hamlet switches the letter with one he pens, ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Hamlet, of course, is one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, but Stoppard employs a wide variety of tools, not the least of which is slapstick, to make his interpretation a comedy, or, considering the outcome, perhaps better described as a tragicomedy. This is where the talents of the Boston crew really shine. LeBow's performance is a master class and he could be found guilty of grand larceny for all the scene stealing he does. The Tragedians speak little but draw wagonloads of laughs, especially Latreille in her horse costume and Place channeling Harpo Marx with his bicycle horn. Matthew Bretschneider (Alfred) gives a fine effort as a young actor who doesn't like being an actor and who is often made to play the female roles. The royals and their entourage play it straight, and Hoopman and Lopez maintain a regal bearing.

Wilson Chin's scenic design employs a series of sliding walls that represent a variety of locales in the first two acts. With projections (Zachary G. Borovay) superimposed, we are in a forest one moment, and when the panels slide apart, our vantage is backstage watching a play being performed upstage. There are footlights and actors with their backs to us, emoting to an expanse of darkness that suggests an audience. The third act transpires on a boat, represented by a mast topped by a crow's nest, and evocative sounds of the sea and creaking timbers. Sound designer Obadiah Eaves (also original music) and lighting designer David Lander effectively augment the world of the play, and the delicious costumes by designer Ilona Somogyi range from the earthy, utilitarian threads of the troupe to the eye-popping colors and fabrics of the upper crust.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is challenging in that it is partly fueled by confusion, a function of there being a play within the play, a focus on reality vs. art, and the numerous existential questions volleyed back and forth between the characters. DuBois draws excellent performances from all involved and keeps the action moving, while effectively using periods of silence and darkness that are inserted by the playwright. He captures the comedy, yet keeps the tragic aspects close at hand. DuBois seems undaunted by the chaotic elements and lets Hurt and Webb play fast and loose with their bits. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might have liked the same consideration from the people pulling their strings.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, runs through October 20, 2019, at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA. For tickets and information, call the box Office at 617-266-0800 or visit

Written by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design, Wilson Chin; Costume Design, Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design, David Lander; Original Music & Sound Design, Obadiah Eaves; Projection Design, Zachary G. Borovay; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane; Choreographer, Daniel Pelzig; Fight Consultant, Omar Robinson; Music Consultant, Matthew Stern; Illusion Consultant, Evan Northrup

Cast (in order of appearance): Alex Hurt, Jeremy Webb, Will LeBow, Matthew Bretschneider, Laura Latreille, Zaven Ovian, Marc Pierre, Dale Place, Omar Robinson, Michael Underhill, Brian Lee Huynh, Meghan Leathers, Ed Hoopman, Melinda Lopez, Kadahj Bennett, Ken Cheeseman; Understudy, Margaret Clark (Ophelia)