Something’s funny in the state of Denmark. Rottenly funny too as the Jewish Theatre Workshop presents Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Directed by Brad Norris and Ariella McCown, this irreverent approach to Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives audiences an existential, albeit comical, look into the minds of the servants who have been assigned to the maddened prince. A witty, albeit verbose, play in true Stoppard fashion, this production will make you reevaluate the Bard’s great tragedy as you know it.
Set Designer Amalia Kotlicky plays with the play’s mystical nature. Philosophizing probability and existence comes as naturally to the title characters as Kotlicky’s inspirations for her creations. The backdrop is composed of doors. All shapes, colors and sizes, some are even turned sideways, creating an intriguing panel backdrop for the audience to ponder as the production progresses. For Act II, which takes place on a boat, the doors are transformed into a serene oil painting that captures the essence of a rising, or perhaps setting, sun on the water’s horizon. The indiscriminate nature of the sun in the painting only adds to the puzzlement of the title characters’ predicament. Kotlicky, in addition to the doors and the seascape, crafts two piers that extend from the proscenium and are covered in fisherman’s netting. While aesthetically pleasing, the piers become more of a distraction than anything as the actors are constantly running and jumping on them in a superfluous fashion.
Directors Brad Norris and Ariella McCown have gathered a series of enthusiastic performers to work through the denser text provided by Stoppard. Norris and McCown, however, struggle to keep the show moving at a consistent pace. There are several moments throughout the production, especially toward the end of Act I, where long moments and pauses hang longer than necessary, creating awkward silences. Simultaneously there are large portions of text where Guildenstern flies through the delivery of his lines so quickly that he’s difficult to understand and several of the well-crafted jokes are lost to the audience.
Norris and McCown do an excellent job of creating enthusiasm for these characters, really letting them get worked up into the situations in which they find themselves, however, there is a lack of honed focus for the constant movement coming from Guildenstern. His ambling about the stage, often in a frantic bout of pacing, is distracting; detracting from his hysterics rather than augmenting. It’s exhausting to watch him.
While many of the characters from the classic are present, like Gertrude and Ophelia, they are mostly silent characters. Much like the “Tragedians,” they become an integral part of the show with their silent presence. The aforementioned animated actors add hints of amusement throughout the production with the classic “dying” moments. The Tragedians are led by The Player (Chava Sussman Goffin) who insinuates herself into the play’s existence emphatically. Well delivered by Goffin, the lines are poignant and witty with an edge of mystery to them that keeps her character interesting in the midst of Stoppard’s occasional monotony.
The meat of the play comes down to the title characters of Rosencrantz (Jonas David Grey) and Guildenstern (Issac Kotlicky). The pair have a sustainable on-stage chemistry that is translated well through their physical activeness, even if they are a bit uneven in their overall performance. Kotlicky as Guildenstern gives a scattered performance without any true focus to the character’s many speeches. Kotlicky does, however, have a sharply centered moment at the end of the production when he begins to draw his divine conclusion of the inevitable.
Grey steals the show with his physically comic antics, flipping coins and conserving his energy for those rare moments of built-up eruption. With a grounded presence, which thoroughly anchors the character to their predicament. Grey balances his character’s moments of extreme vexation with a chipper yet simplistically air of enthusiasm. When he engages with Kotlicky for the rousing game of ‘questions’ he is a fierce force to be reckoned with.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays through August 18, 2013 in the Straus Auditorium at The Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center— 5700 Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore, MD. For ticket reservations call (410) 709-8589. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.