Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Don’t Stoppard

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

Tom Stoppard was 27 when he wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and it shows.  It’s definitely got that late-twenties sense of ennui where you’re laughing at your own stupid existential despair because you’re old enough to feel it but still young enough that it doesn’t mean anything yet.  Stoppard has a great quote from later on in his life that I think really disproves “sardonic and solipsistic asshole” reading of R&G (he’s talking about directing the film version here):  “It just seemed that I’d be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect.”  I love this quote because Stoppard is acknowledging an essential truth about the play.  Is it a hugely significant mid-century work of abstract metatheatrical art?  Yep.  And it’s also kind of dumb, but that’s okay, because he knows it.

Lance Bankerd, directing here, knows it too, and the places where this production takes off are in the silly, anachronistic details  – Thom Sinn’s seemingly cocaine-fueled performance of Polonious, for example, makes no fucking sense but is hilarious, as is the way the actors pop in and out of the set like a game of Wack-A-Mole.  Bankerd understands absurdism, his Baltimore production of Beckett’s End Game was one of my favorites back in 2017, and this has the same “whistling in the dark” vibe (and he’s not afraid to let that dark come in, too, the last visual in the show is haunting).  Some of this strays a little too cutesy for me yes; I was not a huge fan of the overly literal set by Gaya Sel, nor really of the stubbornly denim costumes from Deana Fisher Brill (though to construct Elizabethan garments out of jean material is something, so total props there).  But overall, Bankerd is delighted, and likes to laugh, and he keeps the whole thing from getting bogged down with its own importance.

Is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead funny?  Yes, but also no.  This is an example of a text where the characters are not interesting in and of themselves – and that’s the joke.  We’re all the heroes of our own sad stories, right?  There’s audacity in insisting that we matter, even if all the evidence is to the contrary, isn’t there?  These bit players, these nobodies, are important to themselves, no matter how dismissed and overlooked they are in the context of Hamlet.  The dialogue has a tendency to whiz by with alacrity, and if you’re not really up on the script and the actors aren’t taking enough of a pause to let it land, it can be bewildering, which happens a few times.  But Logan Davidson and Matt Wetzel completely grok that this is first and foremost a tremendous double act, and they succeed, if the energy dips once and again, the flow is more than there.

The verbal ping-pong match is always satisfying to watch, and this production is no exception, but Davidson, especially, brings a sense of melancholy to Rosencrantz (the more naive of the two, the more wide-eyed) that’s arresting.  I’m always interested in what the actors will do when the comedy gets subdued and Stoppard hits you with something downright nightmarish (“Before we know the word for it, before we know that there are words,out we come, bloodied and squalling…with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.”)  Davidson hits these two monologues with a sad light lamping out of their eyes that’s absolutely striking, and at times sublime.  Wetzel is solid, and his straight man to Davidson’s childlike wonder is fun, even if the beats feel a little played out by the end.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  Lance Bankerd’s relaxed, organic version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Fells Point Corner Theatre is definitely worth a look.  It’s not terribly outside of the box, but rooted performances from the dynamic duo of Matt Wetzel and Logan Davidson make this a solid addition to a theatrical conversation that’s been going on for the last 53 years, which is no small feat.  See it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is playing at Fells Point Corner Theatre until May 5th.

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