Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
June 4, 2011
“I’m afraid it just isn’t your day,” says Rosencrantz to Guildenstern when he loses a coin toss. Unfortunately, the title characters of Tom Stoppard’s classic absurdist tragicomedy, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, aren’t the only ones who are in for a bad time. This is an indifferent rendition of a great play. The performances and production are largely lackluster, and the set is awkward and unsuited for the staging of the piece.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead chronicles the adventures (and lack thereof) of two minor characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s great tragedy, the two courtiers and old school friends of Hamlet only make brief appearances in the action of the play. Their main purpose is to bear Hamlet and a letter from the king demanding the prince’s execution to England. On the journey, Hamlet switches the letter to one that states the bearers should be executed and escapes back to Denmark. In the final scene of Hamlet, an ambassador from England arrives with the brief statement “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” and from this, Tom Stoppard’s essential work of existentialism is born. Here, we see what the two characters were doing all the time they were offstage—that is playing games and exploring questions of fate and free will, and their own significance or insignificance to the great events they are caught up in, which they barely understand. Using brilliant metatheatrical devices, brief scenes from Hamlet are also enacted on stage, but seen from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s limited views, the original tragedy’s action seems comical and nonsensical. This is a richly complex and hilarious work but neither the philosophy nor the humor comes across in a meaningful way in this production.
The Big Rodent production is staged in a small, boxy space with the actors seemingly in constant danger of tripping over audience members’ feet as they dash for exits and entrances. The seats are set up in such a way that the faces of one or the other of the principal actors are hidden from the views of half the audience half the time. As the interplay between the two characters is the most crucial element of the play, this set and blocking mismanagement is distracting. Once in a while, Adam Aguirre and Jordan Gray as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, reach the level of complex camaraderie needed between the two to convey the layered meanings of the play, but mostly, the chemistry between the two is not strong enough and neither plumbs his character deeply enough to convey all the nuance. The supporting cast, playing a troupe of tragedians and various characters from Hamlet, give unconvincing performances that hinder the piece further. Unfortunately, overall, this production doesn’t really do Stoppard’s masterpiece the justice it deserves.