Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Produced by Longacre Lea at Catholic University.
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
“Give us this day our daily cue,” prays Guildenstern (Jonathan Church), cueless and clueless, late in the second act of Longacre Lea’s remarkably satisfying production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Alas, Guildenstern’s problem is not too little instruction but too much, and too little context. Without reliable memories, reliable information or reliable assumptions – even the law of averages seems problematical! – Rosencrantz (the excellent Jason Stiles) and Guildenstern are cat’s-paws for everyone brighter or luckier than they. Which is, as it turns out, everyone.
Even the best art lacks the dimensional fullness of real experience. There is always something beyond edge of the artist’s vision. Who, having seen the Mona Lisa, has not wanted to walk past the enigmatic woman in the frame to puzzle out the mystery of the double horizon? Or, having viewed “The Thinker”, is not curious to learn what Rodin’s iron man has thought up? In what is arguably the greatest play in the English language, Shakespeare hitches our perspective to that of a young man so drunk with sorrow, rage and guilt that he disowns language itself (mockingly, he tells Polonius that he reads “words, words, words”) in favor of the more solid action of his sword. It is a thrilling ride, and it is impossible to leave the theater after Hamlet without being moved.
But what was the action like from Ophelia’s perspective? Or that of Fortinbras? How did it seem to King Claudius? Or – to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
It was Stoppard’s conceit that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two of Hamlet’s old friends made malleable by ambition and sycophancy, brought forth by the King to learn more about Hamlet’s state of mind – were actually inhabitants of a moral and emotional desert more suitable to one of Beckett’s plays than to one of Shakespeare. They seem like a 16th century Vladimir and Estragon, except that instead of waiting for Godot they are waiting for the death they know their bumbling and bad luck will eventually win for them.
This is an audacious concept, made even more challenging by Stoppard’s decision to make passivity their dominant characteristic. They are cowards, certainly: tasked to find Hamlet after the killing of Polonius, they cannot decide which way to exit the room and so do nothing. When Hamlet wanders into the room they are terrified.
So this is the job order Stoppard places before companies which would do his work: put on a play about two minor characters in an English masterpiece, and even though they take no initiative and are rather venal and not too nice, make them sympathetic enough so that the play comes alive to the audience. Oh, yes, and it’s three hours long, too.
The task is too much for most companies. It is our good luck that it’s not too much for Longacre Lea.
Directed with an extraordinarily sure hand by Kathleen Ackerley, Longacre Lea’s Rosencrantz is a fast-paced, high-octane mix of wordplay, quick wit, sudden emotional changes all bottomed on the sort of existential dread familiar to Beckett enthusiasts. Stiles and Church generate a completely authentic warmth and childish innocence which, paradoxically, informs the audience how lonely and dangerous the lives of these characters are. As they travel, superbly paced, through the plethora of games and contests with which they entertain themselves, we come to realize that whatever little they know or understand about life, they understand each other, and that this friendship is their great comfort. By bringing this relationship into focus so ably, Stiles, Church and Ackerly earn the audience’s attention, and its respect.
Ackerly understands that this play, like a good Shakespeare, needs artistic cooperation from the production to bring out its full potential. She and the actors accordingly illustrated the text with gestures, pantomimes and choreography designed to make understandable that which Stoppard left subtle. The graphic depiction of the bedroom scene the players were to perform at Hamlet’s behest was hilarious, and made the horror the title characters express completely understandable.
Ackerly’s boldest choice was to have four of the actors double in different roles. The Player King (Michael John Casey) doubled as Polonius, and his three tragedians – Michael Glenn, Jason Lott and Alexander Strain (superb recently in Forum Theatre’s The Memorandum) doubled as Hamlet, Claudius, and every female role in the play, respectively. This tack, in my view, did not always work. Casey, a fine actor, employed a sort of moist loopy dialect as the Player, presumptively to help distinguish his Polonius. It seemed to me that the dialect diminished the effectiveness of the Player, who must be at least powerful enough to manipulate the title characters. And when Hamlet and Ophelia bring about the end to a rehearsal of the play within the play, it is a little difficult to determine, at first, which characters Glenn and Strain are inhabiting. But in general this quartet of actors had no trouble handling their multiple roles, and Lott was particularly vivid.
Glenn also doubled as the show’s sound designer, and the assortment of birdcalls, mysterious ticks and clicks, and music was employed with wonderful precision. It really enhanced the production.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, done properly as it is here, is a feast for the mind and heart. I recommend that you approach it respectfully, as you might a fine meal. Don’t go when you’re sleepy, or distracted; wait until you’re rested and ready for insight and experience, and then – tuck in.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (the title comes from the announcement of an Ambassador at the end of Hamlet: “tell him his commandment is fulfilled/Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”) runs Wednesdays through Sundays at Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE in Washington until September 17. Sunday shows are at 2; all other shows are at 7.30. You can get tickets by calling 202.460.2188.