By Tom Stoppard
Produced by Studio Theatre
Directed by Kirk Jackson
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Again. How many times can we watch Tom Stoppard’s amazing rumination on life, death, fate, and chance? The rendition currently playing at Studio Theatre, perfectly cast and under the playful direction of Kirk Jackson, makes the return visit worthwhile. With impeccable Laurel and Hardy timing, down to the bowler hats and even body type resemblance, the hapless duo serve as a wonderful foil to the Bard’s Hamlet, usher in a kind of alternate universe, and allow a peek at life between scenes, a different reality.
That the play is actually a fortieth anniversary production is a testament to its relevance and timeless appeal—its themes are a perfect fit for today’s auto-piloted worker bees in semi-conscious states of servitude and duty. Strains of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are evident from the very beginning as the gentlemen toss a coin that endlessly hits heads, while they wait to determine why they were summoned. Unsure even of their own individual identities since they’re consistently referred to as a couple in Hamlet, Stoppard has them exchange each others’ names, and other characters mix them up as well. Always on the receiving end in the of course of events, they wait and ponder and play word games until the action draws them into utility and function. Raymond Bokhour’s Rosencrantz is a perfectly cast bumbling Hardy to Liam Craig’s thinner, and slightly more focused Laurel. Together, they tackle impossible leaps of faith, brazen philosophical conundrums, even perfect syllogisms, all while poised in silly slap-stick humor. Stoppard makes it look so simple and Jackson’s direction enhances the simplicity with every line, interpretation, movement, entrance, and exit, even down to the vacant deer-caught-in headlight gaze into the audience, so that we too are in on the questions, wondering what to do should we be summoned—would we begin to question our own identities, too?
That’s because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent “everyman.” We know what will eventually befall them-—we’ve read about their fate in that melancholy piece about the Prince of Denmark, or if not, hey, the title tells it all. We also appreciate their attention to their tasks, even though they are totally baffled by life’s existence. Who hasn’t felt such bafflement? Still they rise to the occasion on cue, which we would all love to do, turning from bumbling idiots to erudite speakers commenting on the Prince’s current conditions and even offering solace. That set-up alone would be an interesting enough premise for a full production, but Stoppard goes s step further in offering his priceless take on the role of theater – ah, there’s the rub–the roguish cast under the helm of none other than the hilarious Floyd King as the Player. King’s impeccable delivery is unparalleled. With just the right tilt of his head, arch of a brow, arms held askew, and resigned sigh reminiscent of Jack Benny, he’s the ultimate showman, about the best in town. Among the motley crew that he commandeers are several stalwarts from Synetic Theater, including Dan Istrate who was mesmerizing in Faust, so you know you’re in for not just mental gyrations but spectacular physical form, too.
So many elements of this stellar production are in peak form it’s hard to mention them all. Marshall Elliott exudes a charming bewilderment as Hamlet in his erratic utterances, and Maura McGinn as Gertrude maintains an exquisite and striking demeanor with every move. Sound and lighting designs by Neil McFadden and Michael Phillippi help shift scenes into different fragments of reality—the normal lighting reverts to an eerie darkened hue when the actual play Hamlet cuts into the behind-the-scenes chatter. The play within a play scene is exceptionally well orchestrated, probably due to Floyd King’s mastery of the comedic timing. King gives his all including more than his share of tumbling, bowing, scraping, and crawling along with the rest of cast—it’s a physical show entailing more than its share of scrapes and bruises. The sword fight scene alone, mimed with perfectly rendered sound effects, is a show-stealer, and is not to be missed.
Stoppard raises the stakes in the second act when the two characters start to have a clue as to their mission, and their fate begins to unfold. No matter how many times you see it, those slowly unfolding moments still pack a punch, maybe even more so today than ever before. Maybe, it’s the utter randomness of it all. Maybe it’s the reminders in the script that all three were childhood friends. It still touches. That this is Stoppard’s first full length play is amazing. So is Studio’s production.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is playing now through July 1st at Studio Theatre 14th & P Street, N.W. Tickets: $40 – $55. Showtimes are: Wednesday-Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 2pm, Sunday 7pm. Call 202-332-3300 or reserve online.