This production of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet is being performed in repertory with the tragedy of the Danish prince. The actors are playing the same roles in both productions, despite the drastic differences.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead tells the tragedy of Hamlet through the eyes of the prince’s two childhood friends who are sent for by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude (Jason Wilson and Janice Hall) in hopes of discovering the truth behind Hamlet’s apparent madness. The title characters, played by Philip Lakin and Robert King, never do learn the truth, and all of the on-stage action, seen from their perspective, is confusing, to say the least, and absurd to put it mildly. The audience is treated to brief appearances of major characters from Hamlet who enact fragments of the original’s scenes, including Ophelia (Erin Cronican), Horatio (Max Lorn-Krause) and, of course, Hamlet himself, played with fierce intensity by Brandon Walker.
An air of confusion envelops Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; as the men pace and sit on the abstractly minimalist set, they never seem to know where they are going or why. They frequently state they were “sent for,” but they don’t seem to know the reason. They encounter a group of performers (Kristen Carbone, David Arthur Bachrach, Alex Alcheh, Oliver Lehne) who eventually join them at Hamlet’s castle and engage in dialogue about, well, life and death. Dialogue includes statements like, “Does it matter?” “Shouldn’t it matter?” “Which way did we come from? I’ve lost my sense of direction,” and “I’m just demonstrating the misuse of free speech to prove it exists.”
This ensemble of actors is clearly comfortable with the material; they converse with ease and give natural performances that are, if anything, understated. Lakin and King are a great onstage duo. They work off each other with ease and provide a great deal of comedy in their interactions. Walker’s Hamlet is especially frightening; his ferocious temper is exposed in all its rage and, at times, he appears armed with a gun and a can of gasoline and a match. I had never seen a Hamlet armed with weapons before, and its impact was frightening. Bachrach, in the ensemble of Players, was also especially powerful onstage, providing a simultaneous weight and levity in his performance.
The staging is also very clever, peppered with strategically placed moments of comedy. As Halmet emotionally abuses Ophelia, she buries herself in a copy of the “Really Holy Bible”, and, in an amusing moment, Hamlet is seen reading a copy of “Eat, Pray, Love” while lounging in the King’s throne. I also enjoyed seeing Horatio standing quietly in the background, studiously taking notes on Hamlet’s actions and even mopping up the gasoline the “sweet prince” spills.
The downfall of Hamlet was his inability to make a decision and act upon it, and that same burden is placed on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Much of the play feels like the characters are treading water, depicted in their neverending game of a coin toss.
I don’t think I could have enjoyed – or understood – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead without having seen and studied Hamlet in the past; however, this skillfully and naturally performed production by The Seeing Place provided a thoroughly entertaining look at Shakespeare’s work in a new way. One of the performers says to one of the men, “We’re actors. We are the opposite of people,” but I disagree with that statement in regard to the cast members of this show.