Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – To See or Not to See
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was first staged in 1966 and made him a fucking superstar almost overnight. It’s widely regarded as one of the best examples of metatheatre ever written. And now, curiously, it has become so well-known (at least to someone like me, who performed scenes from it in various acting classes, oh, I don’t know, probably five million times) that it’s almost metametatheatre. Some of the lines are as famous as those from Hamlet itself: “We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people!” “Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?” “Audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in.” The point is, if you’re going to do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in 2016, you had better be prepared to do something with it or it’s indistinguishable from Acting 101. Stillpointe’s most recent take, playing now at their new permanent space on Charles Street, both does and doesn’t.
Let’s start with what it does. The most obvious attempt is director Jon Kevin Lazarus’s use of puppets (design by Michael Paradiso) as stand-ins for the characters of Hamlet, excepting, of course, R & G. While the two titular doltheads (Meghan Taylor as Rosencrantz and Tyler C. Groton as Guildenstern) stand about debating life, death, existence and cartography, just to name a few, the puppet versions of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius and Assorted pop in to deliver scanty instructions and scantier objectives. I am now in the position of having seen the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as portrayed by puppets in Hamlet (Cohesion just did this) and the characters of Hamlet as portrayed by puppets in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. If this is a long game joke from these two companies, I can’t help but applaud it. Otherwise, I think we might be able to let this idea rest awhile on the Baltimore small stage. Like, I get it. The puppets, here, make clowns of the royals, play up that it is the background characters that deserve to have their story told, for once. The issue is that the point isn’t complex enough to be this belabored. Unfortunately, the puppets get old after we catch the drift, which is about two minutes in. The exception is Dana Woodson’s treatment of Ophelia, which is pretty hilarious.
So let us, for a moment, subtract the puppets from the mix. If you do that, it starts to become obvious that the show is a little static. I think that the Lazarus’s intention is to foreground the (frankly amazing, it literally never feels dated) dialogue, but the completely blank stage, lacking almost all furniture, makes it difficult for the players to find their blocking. I found myself often looking at a pair or a group of people standing flat in a line on the same plane. With the length of the monologues here, you really have to use well-planned motion as punctuation, or the whole thing starts to stagnate. Let me be clear: the show is never not going to be interesting and funny, not with Stoppard’s rapier wit-on-speed, but opportunities were lost in the choice.
Performances were bumpy, especially with some line issues at the beginning. Stoppard’s play is built on absurd precision, to interrupt that is a sin. Much as with Waiting for Godot, these characters need to work as two halves of one bizarre whole, and I didn’t feel that consistently enough. Taylor is most effective in the murkier, existential side of Rosencrantz (which is interesting, because in a lot of productions, foolish Rosencrantz is played almost completely for laughs, missing the darker notes). She has a tendency, in the more comic portions, to reach into the extreme upper parts of her vocal register and then we lose the words; I’d pull it down. Groton, though, digs into the language early, to good outcome. He’s pleasingly snotty, and plays Guildenstern as gleefully over-educated, a sort of Niles Craneish take that I liked. Elle Marie Sullivan is almost overly flourishy as the lead Player, her court jester-like mannerisms are fun, but could use variation, especially as it’s written so intentionally mysterious. Among the background folks (for yes, ironically, there are characters even more background in Hamlet!) Jim Knost has the kind of voice that makes me want to actually see him play Claudius and Ken Jordan practically walks off with the show with his princess pink dress and vape.
Tech is minimal. Stillpointe is rather a study in extremes, going from suuuuch large spaces and lush environments for their fully- fleshed musicals to this teensy theater, where set designer Ryan Haase appears to have hung some pieces of cloth and called it a day. Costumes by Ryan Haase and Danielle Robinette are non-specific RennFesty, and lights from Janine Vreatt incorporate some prettily colored washes, but get so harsh in the second act that they mostly serve to highlight the grey paint in Groton’s beard hair.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Stillpointe’s Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead seems a more tepid show than I am used to seeing from this company (for which, admittedly, we at The Oracle have a pretty fucking high bar). It has it’s glittery points, as Stoppard always does, but I wish it had pushed harder. Especially in our current atmosphere, where one can hardly find anything more absurd than what I’m seeing daily on CNN, it could have gone further. I guess it’s only a matter of taste, after all.
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