“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” ~ The Player
And that’s pretty much the premise of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist comedy ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Stoppard’s first hit, written in 1966, takes two very minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and invents what is happening to them while the rest of the action is going on at Elsinore. It is appropriate that its first staging was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; it’s a wild and crazy ride around the fringes of the bard’s great tragedy. Most of that play’s major characters (Claudius, Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude and Hamlet) make brief appearances, and we get snippets of original scenes, such as R&G’s first meeting with the king and queen and a piece of Hamlet’s “To a nunnery go” speech. Between these episodes the two protagonists voice their confusion at the progress of events—of which they have no direct knowledge as they are occurring “onstage” without them. The two often stumble upon some deep philosophical truths during their nonsensical ramblings, but completely miss the significance and go off on new tangents.
We meet our two heroes (and I use the term loosely) as they are on the road to Elsinore, summoned by King Claudius. It doesn’t take long to see that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in way over their heads. For starters, they are hopelessly lost and can’t figure out which way to the castle. Some of Stoppard’s early exposition drags on a bit, but C J Keller as Rosencrantz and Eric Scotolati as Guildenstern (or is it the other way around—no one is sure, even them) are a hoot. They rival Abbott and Costello, at their “Who’s on First” best, with the speed and agility with which they deliver the complex dialogue.
Just as R & G are about ready to give up, a troupe of travelling actors comes by—the ones who will perform the play-within-a-play for Hamlet. They specialize in blood, love and rhetoric they tell R & G: “Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory.” Their leader, known only as “The Player,” is as charmingly smarmy as it gets. Brian McCann wears the character as well as he wears his plumed hat. His troupe is a sad-sack bunch of misfits who give us some hilarious pantomime. But quick as a wink, they’ve scurried off stage to return as the various denizens of Elsinore. Josh Hitchens and Jennifer Summerfield are suitably regal as Claudius and Gertrude—and equally bawdy in the “Tragedian” guises. Ryan Walter bombasts with the best of them as Polonius (he also serves as the fight choreographer) and Rachel Gluck does her ethereal best with the brief glimpses of Ophelia. Since Ms. Summerfield and Ms. Gluck are supposed to be boys when with the troupe, Steve Carpenter, as Alfred, gets the honor of wearing the dresses and wigs—in keeping with medieval custom, of course. In the Hamlet scenes, he is Horatio, Hamlet’s friend (who is the only one to survive to the end of that play).
The troupe helps R & G find Elsinore, wherein Claudius gives them the assignment of finding out what ails Hamlet—a task they have no clue how to accomplish. Their efforts are quite hilarious and Hamlet (a wonderfully morose [yet “pissy”] Harry Slack) outwits them at every turn—something The Player takes great delight in goading them about. Curio’s cleverly staged version has Act I ending with the troupe performing The Murder of Gonzago per Hamlet’s instructions—only in this version there is a nice little tag that foreshadows the fate of R & G, which actually catches their attention. And confuses them, of course.
Act II picks up a short time later—but with a slight twist. After their attempt to elicit from Hamlet the hiding place of Polonius’ corpse, R &G find themselves on board the ship to England, totally unsure how they got there. The two eventually remember the letter Claudius had given them—and upon reading it—discover their true mission. Things progress from there….
Curio is to be commended for their creative use of their resources and budget. They have configured this production with the audience on the raised stage area at the front of the former sanctuary. The viewer is “right in it,” as the young lady who sat next to me said to her companion. Though daunting at times when you are the performer, this allows the audience to see all of the subtle little character nuances that each actor has added. And the entire ensemble has done beautifully detailed work here—under the strong and swift direction of Liz Carlson. She seems to know just when to let the gang loose and when to rein them in. And it is evident that she kept an eagle eye on it all, tweaking and editing as needed.
Paul Kuhn has to be one of the most inventive set designers in town—he has managed to create Elsinore Castle AND a ship most cleverly in the confines of a theatre with no fly space. And the cart used by the troupe is a feat of engineering. I was fascinated at how it all worked so compactly. A tip of a plumed hat to you Sirrah. Aetna Gallagher’s costumes are well executed designs that evoke the period perfectly. Her choice of colors and fabrics were lovely. The one note that took me out of the moment briefly was the fact that when Rosencrantz removed his boot, he was wearing regular pants and not pantaloons. But I may be quibbling…..
Drew Peterson’s soundscape complimented the piece beautifully; the pre-show music got you in the right mindset and the supporting effects throughout were just right. Add Andrew Cowles’s intriguing lighting design to the sum of the parts and you’ve got some solid technical support—it ain’t easy to light a church sanctuary, job well done.
Rosencrantz: Shouldn’t we be doing something… constructive?
Guildenstern: What did you have in mind? A short, blunt human pyramid?
My suggestion would be to treat yourself to an evening of superbly absurd theatre at Curio.
ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Liz Carlson
April 14 – May 14, 2011
Curio Theatre Company
at The Calvary Center
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143