On Friday, StillPointe Theatre Initiative opened its production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an absurdist play by Tom Stoppard that, along with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, sets the high bar for its genre. Don’t let some highfalutin notion of absurdist theater scare you away, though. In StillPointe Theatre’s capable hands, this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is accessible, witty, and fun.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. School chums from Hamlet’s younger, happier days, they are brought in by King Claudius to try to figure out why the prince is acting crazy. Their roles in that play are minor. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead tells the story of what the characters did in Hamlet, but it includes what they were doing during all the times they weren’t onstage in Shakespeare’s play. Think of it as an inverse Hamlet. It’s a play of opposites.
As it turns out, the thing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do most is talk to each other, largely about deep existential unknowables. There is a risk in dealing with such weighty topics as the nature of reality and the dualities between passivity and action; fate and chance; actor and character, sanity and madness. This play done poorly is a painful way to spend two hours of one’s life. And it’s easy to do it poorly. Yet, done well, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a straight-up romp! To their credit, StillPointe Theatre Initiative took on this challenging play and did it right, resulting in a production that is smart, fast-paced, and hilarious.
The other thing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do is engage in wordplay. The dialogue in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is brilliant. It is full of clever puns, double entendres, and all manner of rapid-fire repartee. The actors – especially Meghan Taylor, Tyler C. Groton, and Elle Marie Sullivan – are put through linguistic calisthenics worthy of some kind of Language Olympics, in which they’d all take home the gold.
Director Jon Kevin Lazarus was mindful of the dualities of this show in his casting. Meghan Taylor (Rosencrantz) and Tyler C. Groton (Guildenstern) are, for one, visually different. Groton is tall and male, with closely shorn hair and beard. Taylor is female and, particularly in comparison, quite diminutive. Even more distinguishing than their appearances, though, is how skillfully the actors play the opposing temperaments of their characters. The eponymous title characters are two sides of the same coin, like the two halves of the same person – heart and head, feeling and thinking.
As Guildenstern, Groton displayed good posture, a thoughtful brow, and movements that were smooth and deliberate. Groton’s physical choices adeptly presented Guildenstern as the cleverer of the pair, a character who is always thinking, overthinking, and then getting dismayed by clues that maybe reality isn’t real. He’s like your stoned roommate in college who could literally spend hours wondering if his life might actually be the dream of his pet goldfish – only Guildenstern’s deadly serious.
Taylor’s dexterously-played Rosencrantz, on the other hand, was mercurial, a bit dim-witted, and willing to accept things as they come. Her character prefers to go with the flow – even if it’s flowing toward rocks or a waterfall. Under stress or surprise, though, Rosencrantz becomes volatile in words and movement.
“We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off.” – Player
In their travels, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are happened upon by a group of entertainers. All the members of the Tragedians ensemble were great, but actor Ken Jordan, as the bearded, smoking, tattooed, princess-dress-wearing Alfred, gave a standout performance. Granted, he’s got both the funniest and saddest role in the ensemble, but he really owned it. I believe Alfred utters only six words in the entire play, but through Jordan’s facial expressions, gestures and physicality, he communicated volumes.
The true show-stealer of StillPointe’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, though, was Elle Marie Sullivan, who portrayed Player, the head of the Tragedians. Like Taylor and Groton, Sullivan was tasked with speaking a huge number of words in fast, clever, and sometimes unexpected combinations. And Sullivan was playing the only character who seemed to have a real grasp of what was going on – including the fact that it was a play (within a play, based on another play). Player was not only a traveling performer, but also part snake oil salesman; part vaudevillian; part escort service operator; part narrator; part foreshadower; and a little bit Greek chorus. She rocked every aspect of her complex role. Sullivan’s energy was consistent at ‘how can she keep that up?’ level for the entire show. She had excellent timing and a great connection to the cast and the audience. And there was the puppet. Have I not mentioned the puppets, yet?
“We are actors. We’re the opposite of people!” – Player
Jon Kevin Lazarus’s Director’s Note states, “This show is for the overlooked, the background players, the puppets, who never have their story told.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare tells the story of a usurper King, a widowed / newlywed Queen, a bereft Danish Prince and their court. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the troupe of Tragedians who come to perform for the King are exactly the types of characters Lazarus is referring to: overlooked background players. Additionally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are popularly characterized as “puppets” when people discuss Hamlet because of the way they are used by Claudius.
But this is a play of opposites, an inversion of Hamlet. With everything turned on its head, the background characters from Hamlet are the primary characters, the stars, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This turns the principals of Hamlet into the overlooked puppets in this show – something Lazarus manifests literally. Each member of the Tragedian ensemble also plays at least one additional character who is a puppet. Sullivan (Player) also plays Puppet Polonius. Jordan (Alfred) also plays Puppet Gertrude. Other versatile Tragedians play Puppet Claudius, Puppet Ophelia, Puppet Horatio and the beleaguered Puppet Hamlet.
The puppets created for this production are great. Michael “the Puppet Guy” Paradiso’s craftsmanship is of such a high caliber that at 20-years-old, he has been making puppets for area theaters and for the Baltimore County School System for several years. Imagine the work he’ll be doing when he’s 30.
“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.” – Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not a play that calls for a complicated set. In fact, when it was first produced in 1966, it played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. By their very nature, fringe festivals require simplicity and portability on the tech side of things. Set Designer Ryan Haase and Lighting Designer Janine Vreatt kept that fringe feel to their designs on this show and it worked elegantly. The small elevated stage and the larger, house-level stage were draped in versatile layers of dark, mottled cloth. With simple lighting and the sounds of lazy ocean waves, the cloths became ship sails of a boat taking characters across the sea to England or Denmark. With a change in lighting and the ocean sounds gone, they became tapestries on the walls of Elsinore Castle. A very small number of other set pieces and props completed an atmosphere appropriate for this play that focuses so heavily on words.
The technical area where StillPointe shone the most was costuming. Costume Designers Ryan Haase and Danielle Robinette created magnificent clothes for this cast to wear. Gorgeous Elizabethan coats, wacky costumes for the Traveling Tragedians, even remarkably detailed hats and shoes. Sartorially stunning, the costume team’s efforts made this a really beautiful show to watch. I also appreciated how even the costumes reinforced the theme of duality for the show. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s costumes, in particular, lent support to the theme, as they were made of the same materials and it appeared that they were not just complimentary, but parts of the same outfits. As one of many examples, the pants that Guildenstern wore seemed to be half of a matched set with Rosencrantz’s coat.
StillPointe Theatre Initiative has produced a visually appealing, thought-provoking piece of theater with their production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Head over there to celebrate the end of the school year, the start of summer, the 92nd consecutive time your coin toss landed on heads… Whatever your reason for attending, StillPointe’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a smart and funny good time with a great group of actors and designers committed to bringing well-crafted theater experiences to their community.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including two intermissions.