Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead delights
School players bring Hamlet characters to life in new light
I knew what I was getting myself into before the play even started. My friend did not.
I vaguely explained to her that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play based on two minor characters from Hamlet, which she seemed to accept before shrugging dully and agreeing to join me. Any more detail and she’d probably back out.
I had seen the film, written by Tom Stoppard, starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth a few times and was fully aware that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The play’s more properly described as “an absurdity, existentialist, tragicomedy” directed by Glenda Stirling. (Thanks Wikipedia.)
To best exemplify this, the first 20 or so minutes of the play are spent watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip a coin — a coin that has consecutively landed on heads 70-some times. This is a fabulous scene.
It’s not just because it goes on for 20 minutes or because it inspires thought-provoking questions, (“A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, for nothing else at least in the law of probability…”) but because this is where we’re first introduced to the characters and the actors who play them.
Students Steve Evanik plays Rosencrantz and Byron Allen plays Guildenstern. Viewers aren’t privvy to who’s playing which role throughout the play’s first half. This is mainly due to the fact that they themselves don’t know who they are.
This is played off of original lines of Hamlet when the king says: “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern” and the queen corrects with, “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.” Of course, those who know their Shakespeare already knew that.
Both actors are engaging and humorous, getting laughs despite the small audience. While each of their characters appear equally idiotic and interchangeable at the start, Evanik and Allen manage to make them their own.
Evanik always has a comically dimwitted expression on his face that is sometimes likeable, sometimes annoying. Allen manages to portray Guildenstern as the more intelligent of the two, while being witty, befuddling and — somehow — charming at the same time. The two endlessly banter with The Player, Joe Semenoff, when they’re not stumbling into Hamlet’s scenes or chatting with the king and queen.
It doesn’t take long to realize the most impressive part of the production is the actor’s ability to remember many long, complex lines and deliver them flawlessly and with gusto.
The rest of the small ensemble didn’t do anything particularly memorable.
They seemed to lack a certain enthusiasm or flashiness that would have made for more of an exciting contrast to the overall wordiness of the play.
More than half of the cast seemed to wander around like extras — such as the Attendants, who walked back and forth across the stage following King Claudius or Queen Gertrude. The Tragedians, having no lines, also could have easily been a lot more entertaining. From the group of them, I can only remember nose-picking Alfred, played by Jade Benoit. Somehow Hamlet, played by Josh Symonds, became a surprisingly delightful character, walking slowly and dramatically across the stage at the most randomly amusing moments. The play creates a powerful dynamic and invites you to think something that perhaps some audience members weren’t expecting.
If you let your mind wander for a minute, you’ll find you will have completely lost track of the seemingly endless banter between the characters, if you were keeping track at all.
What is so spellbinding about Stoppard’s work is that it takes two seemingly meaningless characters, dresses them up as idiots and turns them into two profound and thought-provoking characters. Whether you like Shakespeare or not isn’t too important though it does add to the fun if you know your Hamlet and can follow along with the lines.
For a low-key production with a small cast and an even smaller set, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was fun to watch despite what my friend may have thought.