Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Court Theatre
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see John's review of Purpose

(front) Lorenzo Rush Jr., Rob Lindley, Nate Burger,
and Erik Hellman

Photo by Michael Brosilow
Court Theatre's 2023/2024 season continues with Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The production marks the last that Charles Newell will direct before he transitions from his role as the Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director into one as the company's Senior Artistic Consultant, and it serves as fittingly witty, moving finale.

Newell deftly shifts the focus from nonstop cleverness to resonant existential crisis in a number of ways. He trims the play's text substantially (the show is almost exactly 90 minutes with no intermission), occasionally transforming dialogue into frenetic action that borders on clowning, to maintain a focus on the titular characters that is both relentless and rewarding. He also the combines world of Hamlet with the world of the tragedians, such that each member of the ensemble, save The Player himself, takes on the role of one of the doomed in Denmark.

Moreover, Newell strategically keeps the company of actors onstage as "themselves" at times when Stoppard's text reduces the scene to just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Newell enlists the company to turn the stage into a makeshift boxing ring, then serve as cornermen for the two during the game of "Questions"; similarly, they hover at the edges, nodding in agreement and wincing at false starts, as the two men try to excavate their names, their pasts, and their purpose amidst the anxiety dream comings and goings offstage at Elsinore.

To make this new tilt on an already absurd play work, Newell relies on the production team to create the illusion of behind-the-scenes authenticity with the utmost skill and artifice. John Culbert's scenic design lays the foundation for this endeavor. The opening coin-spinning scene takes place on a thrust backed by a red, swagged curtain running the width of the stage that lends things a decidedly makeshift feel. A single, low bench (one of several that Culbert employs throughout) serves to sketch in the landscape or the horses the two might be riding on their way to the castle, and it serves to divide the two characters from one another. Within the space of the thrust, a semicircle suggesting a not-quite functional compass imparts the necessary sense of a world with no cardinal points.

When the red curtain falls, we find ourselves on the bare stage of the Court's performance space, or at least on the illusion of it, down to the red, upstage wall that bears the theater's name in enormous letters, using the same design as the company's PR materials. At stage left and right, cinderblock walls rise from floor to high ceiling, and two exits (or entrances, as Stoppard wants us to remain aware of) accommodate explicit farce late in the play.

With the thrust, the footprint of the stage is a truncated pyramid, but the design maintains the impression of circle with a ring of mismatched foot- and spotlights arranged to contain the compass-like pattern in the center of the floor. Culbert uses a series of three narrower black curtains to subdivide the stage as needed, and the play ends with a continuous white curtain pulled in from stage right to mask the upstage wall entirely as the lighting, the sound of the curtain traveling along its pipe, and all the physical elements of the set come together in a powerful, inexplicably emotion-packed moment.

Keith Parham's lighting design and the sound design by Andre Pluess can hardly be separated from one another or from Culbert's set. Parham pins the players in tight circles of light, calling attention to the constraints each is under in the moments when they are "off stage" or not yet "in character." As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in turn, contemplate the experience of being dead and ponder its merits relative to whatever kind of life the two have, Parham opens an oblong blazing light, just barely big enough to contain their supine bodies at the very edge of the thrust, gently nudging the big questions out into the audience.

Pluess's sound design asserts itself before the actors take the stage, worming its way into the audience's sense of how the world simply is. The ambient sound never quite fades into the background, but remains subtle enough that the more explicitly "composed" moments are precisely as jarring, energizing, or mournful as they need to be.

Raquel Adorno outfits the two main characters in not-quite-identical pure white suits and flat sneakers that suggest a kind of bygone, careless privilege, or at least the slightly desperate desire to project such an image. The players are in black, similarly old-fashioned garments to which Adorno adds crowns, a bowler, or a circlet of flowers to signal the transitions from text-to-text. The costume design also contributes to the power of the play's climax as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern disappear beyond one of the black drapes as The Player pulls it from center stage toward each wing in succession, then the two of them re-emerge in their "that is enough" identities, signified by black suits, each with a red rose in their lapel.

In the lead roles, Nate Burger (Rosencrantz) and Erik Hellman (Guildenstern) are individually and collaboratively remarkable. Without shying away from the fraught dynamic between the two, which still occasionally threatens to boil over into violence, the two establish a relationship of fundamental, mutual care and kindness that is not often found in stagings of this work. Burger captures the childlike befuddlement of Rosencrantz just as well as Hellman channels the nervous pseudo-intellectualism of Guildenstern, and still there's a profound and profoundly human reciprocity to their interactions. They are glad of one another in their darkest moments and when there are flashes of insight and joy, and the audience is glad for them in turn.

Lorenzo Rush Jr. has exactly the needed charisma and presence to pull off The Player, and he skillfully picks the moments when he shrugs off the mantle of too-clever-by-half to invite the audience to be flummoxed when he is flummoxed by how confused the title characters are. Newell's choices to condense the roles within the ensemble and the world of Hamlet call on The Player to be a different kind of leader, one who is more collaborative and familial, and Rush Jr. is more than equal to the task.

In the Ensemble, Rob Lindley is particularly engaging as Polonius, as is Charence Higgins as Ophelia. And yet, singling these two actors out is certainly no intended slight to Blake Hamilton Currie (Hamlet), Amir Abdullah (Claudius), or Elizabeth Ledo (Gertrude), as they are all a true pleasure to watch. At this performance it simply seemed that the changes that emanate from Newell's decisions offered the most novel opportunities to Polonius and Ophelia, and yet it is completely believable that on second viewing, shifting one's attention to the others would be equally rewarding and truly new.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has been extended through April 28, 2024, at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 773-753-4472.