Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down heads ninety-two consecutive times, all confirming that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, now onstage at the Folger Theatre, is one to see. For the linguistically inclined, banter and wordplay abound. For the Shakespeare aficionado, there’s more than a sprinkling of the Bard. For the philosopher, there’s that sticky issue of whether life has meaning. And for kink, well, there’s Alfred in his skirt.
The world of Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning and most famous play is one of inversions and polarities. He reframes the familiar Hamlet tale, positioning interchangeable courtiers Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon) and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown) as the leads, with characters and noteworthy moments from Shakespeare sauntering through in their own dedicated style.
Whether two sides of the same coin or the same side of two coins (to use Stoppard’s own parlance), the two men muddle through the Danish landscape, trying to glean what afflicts their friend Hamlet while sorting out their own uncertain role in their world. The laws of probability aren’t cooperating, a troupe of traveling players keeps propositioning their (ahem) patronage, and that’s all before the pirates (they can happen to anyone, after all). Sure, by the end the stage is a pile of bodies, but with a title like this one, we know what we’re getting.
In director Aaron Posner’s hands, this play is both as quirky and elegant as one would expect – at once cheekily anachronistic and graceful in its coherence. Which is exactly what I imagine Stoppard hoping for this work.
Both new to the DC theatre landscape, Witherspoon and Brown are lively and energetic as foils, at turns excitable and worn down by the futility of the plot they find themselves in. The rhythm and precision of their rapid-fire dialogue is impressive to watch, especially in moments when they complete each other’s sentences or joust with questions.
The Player (Ian Merrill Peakes), a performer, hustler, and vagabond, travels parallel to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with his rabble of tragedians (Maggie Donnelly, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Stephen Russell Murray, Jacob Yeh, and Rachel Zampelli), looking for work on their way. The use of live music and the comic choreography of the dumbshow are inventive and playful, urging us to forget, for a bit, where this whole thing is headed.
The cast is rounded out by Craig Wallace (a formidable Claudius), Biko Eisen-Martin (a hipster-rock Hamlet with a turnip of hair), and Kimberly Schraf (an icy Gertrude). Bryn Tucker as Ophelia and Andy Prosky as Polonius have small but memorable cameos.
Under Posner’s direction, the design team does an admirable job of representing the complexities of this work. While on first glance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear dressed almost identically – tunic, trousers, cloaks that double as hoodies, boots, all done in earthy tones – the specifics of their attire belie deeper character distinctions. Guildenstern – the more cynical of the two, the more probing, and by all counts the more assertive – wears all crisp lines, from the angles of his hoodie-cloak (sidenote: designer Helen Huang should totally sell these, they’re brilliant) to his upright leather boots. Rosencrantz – who is, let’s face it, a little more of a mess and certainly more naive than his companion – gets the disarray: asymmetrical hems on his shirt, slouchier pants, boots with laces and tongues flopping over themselves.
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
EXTENDED! May 12 – June 28
201 East Capitol Street, SE
2 hours, 23 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $75
Tickets or call (202) 544-7077
Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, and Gertrude – who inhabit Shakespeare’s lines exclusively – have been outfitted in gauzy, ethereal fabrics and cool colors, heightening the shift in the two realities (and suggesting that Stoppard’s world, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spending their time, is the more real of the two… at least in this play).
Similar care was taken in the lighting (Thom Weaver) and sound (Eric Shimelonis). While not as subtle, an auditory thonk signals the shift from Stoppard to Shakespeare and back again, paired with a wash of color appropriate for each of the two colliding worlds.
A delectable mix of linguistic gymnastics, verbal sparring, and comedy at its finest, this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a very good bet indeed.