Spine: ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ at Folger Theatre (Article)

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I first read Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead back in 1974. It was but one of many plays I devoured as part of my thirst for the absurdist perspective. It’s now playing at Folger Theatre.

Claudius (Craig Wallace, center) directs Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon, right) and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown) to glean what is afflicting Hamlet. Kimberly Schraf pictured in background. Photo by Jeff Malet.
Claudius (Craig Wallace, center) directs Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon, right) and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown) to glean what is afflicting Hamlet. Kimberly Schraf pictured in background. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Even then, its cleverness intrigued me more than its authenticity. Becket’s Waiting for Godot, Pinter’s The Homecoming, Genet’s The Balcony, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros — even Dürrenmatt’s The Visit — possessed a more genuinely absurdist outlook on life, rooted it seems to me viscerally in life’s blood and guts.

Even then, Stoppard’s play appeared more as “theatre of mind” than “theatre of experience.” Valuable to be sure, as that genre of play is valuable, but not as enduring literature.

Even then, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, literary constructs that they are, seemed not so much characters trapped in an absurd universe, but as absurdities themselves. Two minor characters from a Shakespeare tragedy, given very little backstory by the Bard, and even less by Stoppard, sit around backstage awaiting their fate, i.e., their death, as it might be determined by playwrights all.

Such a story makes for a curiosity, an interesting object one might examine over tea and chatter, but not of significance beyond chat.

Now, that I’ve grown older, and death’s avatar has all together lost its cuteness (stage deaths no longer interests me as death: only the gymnastics seems worth the effort), Stoppard’s play on words, his play on death, on playwriting, on his decided lack of having anything to say, was fun for a while but soon had lost its lustre. Perhaps, the overly long First Act (Act I & II combined) caused my Rosencrantz-like mental meandering, as opposed to Guildenstern’s fierce yet nimble fix on truth’s door. Or, perhaps not.

Perhaps, want of invention left my mind adrift.

On the subject of death, Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre wrote: “One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”

The problem with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that, even though they “cease to be” they have no life to die for, i.e., they are after all, in Stoppard’s play, literally “literary constructs.”

For Shakespeare Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a bit different: they are Hamlet’s college buds. There they enjoyed the life of the mind to be sure, but they also had the “carefree” life, the life of play and sport.

Yet, Shakespeare has poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern caught up in Hamlet’s drama, recruited as “spies” by the King who then turns them into unknowing dupes.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the actors playing them would have to make them flesh and blood by filling in the voids that surround them.

In Stoppard’s rift on Hamlet, the actors playing them must, it seems, resist making them flesh and blood. They must remain airy nothings that inhabit the stage as two lost actors with character names (though that is questionable) but without history or desire. Or so it seems.

Unfortunately, Tom Stoppard directed the film version of the play in 1990, with Tim Roth as Guildenstern and Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz. In the film version, they were given flesh and blood presences, full of quirks and nuances. They inhabited their absurd universe as people might.

In other words, they were not absurdities so much as the literary (or cinematographic) world constructed around them.

And “therein lies the rub.”

In a play that is self-consciously mental, where there is purposely no “there” there or anywhere, how does one give the audience something to believe in?

One doesn’t is the obvious choice.

In a world where “belief” is forbidden, where the willing suspension of “disbelief” is a fatal flaw, what creates the theatrical and gives the actor a world to hang a hat on?

In a world without belief only invention occupies the mind, but not of worlds, for they are too easily believed, but rather of things, physical and tangible manifestations of the actor craft.

“This is not the first time we’ve spun coins.” Adam Wesley Brown (Guildenstern, top) and Romell Witherspoon (Rosencrantz) star in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Photo by Jeff Malet.
“This is not the first time we’ve spun coins.” Adam Wesley Brown (Guildenstern, top) and Romell Witherspoon (Rosencrantz) star in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’ Photo by Jeff Malet.

In the opening moments of the play, Adam Wesley Brown (Guildenstern) flips two-sided coins from a perch ten feet above Romell Witherspoon (Rosencrantz). Miraculously, they land heads each time.

Even more miraculously, Brown’s flips and Witherspoon’s catches are perfect. I watched, thoroughly impressed by the confidence and timing of the actors.

Once, somewhat later, during a slow motion coin flip on level ground, Brown’s coin flip fell short of Witherspoon’s outstretched palm. Oh, well, nobody’s perfect. Not even in the theatre.

Later, during the Player’s death scenes — have I mentioned that “death” is the play’s main theme? — one of the Tragedians, Maggie Donnelly, dies slowly, by slowly bending over backwards, from the ankles, her head and torso disappearing as she slips out of sight. What a marvelous way to die! Only an actor could invent such grace in dying.

There were many over-death’s. Brynn Tucker (Ophelia) dies, and stays dead in one of the most awkward positions imaginable. What dedication she has to dying! Only an actor would endure such a long-acting death.

The Player (Ian Merrill Peakes, center left) explains the limitless possibilities to Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown). Also pictured, left to right: Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Maggie Donnelly, Stephen Russell Murray, Rachel Zampelli.  Photo by Jeff Malet.
The Player (Ian Merrill Peakes, center left) explains the limitless possibilities to Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown). Also pictured, left to right: Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Maggie Donnelly, Stephen Russell Murray, and Rachel Zampelli. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Of course, Ian Merrill Peakes (The Player) dies many times. Each, a fine invention! Each, professionally done! I enjoyed them all.

And such it seems is Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, even if the title is a bit misleading. For to be “dead” one must first be “alive.” And dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never once walked upon this “mortal coil” and, thus, can never “shuffle off.”

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library—201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC, through June 21, 2015. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.




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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.