Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 25, 2009
Tom Stoppard's early comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is receiving a robust and exhilarating revival at T. Schreiber Studio, under the expert direction of Cat Parker. Parker and her frequent collaborator, set designer George Allison, have transformed the Schreiber's Gloria Maddox Theatre into an intimate arena, in which the action unfolds in front of, behind, and next to audience members—pretty much no matter where you're positioned in the space. Placing us within the action is an inspired notion, one that reminds us of the wisdom of something Shakespeare said in a play that wasn't Hamlet, to wit,
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances...
The premise of R&G is that we are witness to what's happening to a pair of minor characters from Hamlet during the times when they are offstage. The play begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playing a game of chance and probability while they wait in some anteroom in Elsinore Castle to meet with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. Our heroes have been sent for by these royal personages, although they're not sure why. (They're not even sure they can remember how they got here, or what they were doing before they arrived. Did they even exist before Shakespeare summoned them to play their small but necessary roles in his classic tragedy?)
In less time than it (usually) takes to do Hamlet, Stoppard puts his duo through their paces. We see them in most of the Hamlet sequences they're involved in: the one where Claudius and Gertrude charge them to spy on Hamlet, the one where Hamlet greets them and they inform them of the arrival of the players, and the one where they try to get Hamlet to tell them where he's put the body of the just-slain Polonius. (Interestingly, we don't see the scene where Hamlet tells them he knows what they're up to, where he uses the excellent metaphor of being played upon as though he were a pipe.) These are mere interludes here, however; most of the play finds them alone, trying to puzzle out what they're doing or what they ought to be doing. Eventually, the hapless pair wind up on a ship bound for England, supposedly to bring Hamlet to his doom at the hands of the English king. But of course we know that their actual fate is otherwise.
The debt that Stoppard owes here to Beckett's Waiting for Godot is substantial and well-documented; the twists he adds are what make this play interesting and different from that classic contemplation of life's purpose(less)(ness). What makes R&G fun are the merry allusions to Shakespeare—the idea, for example, that when Hamlet says he knows the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, his two pals have no idea what he's talking about. And what makes R&G compelling is its grafting onto the basic existential problem exemplified by its heroes the more complicated notion of "acting." The Players are an important component of the play because they always seem to know what to do, even though what they're doing isn't real.
Parker's production is loaded with energy and keeps the humor quotient high, whether based in low comedy or high. Eric Percival and Julian Elfer make a fine team as the title characters, with Percival's perpetually perplexed Rosencrantz subtly more appealing than Elfer's Guildenstern, who is oddly both proactive and reactive in different places in the play. Erik Jonsun makes a thrilling New York stage debut as the Player: he's a commanding and constantly arresting presence, and he brings intelligence and unsentimental melancholy to a role that could simply be done for superficial laughs. The supporting ensemble of 14, portraying the troupe of itinerant actors and some of the pivotal characters from Hamlet, is uniformly strong.
Allison's design, deceptively simple, provides the perfect world for the play. Detailed, period-specific costumes by Karen Ledger are lovely to look at and also contribute mightily to R&G's universe. The other production elements—lighting by Eric Cope, sound by Andy Cohen, dialect coaching by Page Clements, and fight direction by Michael Hagins—all cohere beautifully to build up Parker's overall vision. This is a fine, clear representation of a play that marked the beginning of one of the great careers in contemporary British theatre, one that provides plenty of food for thought as it cheekily unfolds and for hours thereafter.