Review: ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at Princeton Summer Theater in Princeton, NJ

Spoiler Alert: The two main characters in this play die.

Well, you probably figured that out, given that the play they’re in is called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Or maybe you figured it out because you remember that characters by those names die in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Then again, even if you’ve seen Hamlet, you may not remember which two of those dozens of characters were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Billy Cohen (Rosencrantz), and Jake McCready (Guildenstern). Photo by Ogemdi Ude.
Billy Cohen (Rosencrantz), and Jake McCready (Guildenstern). Photo by Ogemdi Ude.

See, back in 1602 or thereabouts, these two guys were ex-childhood friends of Hamlet who got hired by the new King of Denmark (Hamlet’s uncle) to spy on Hamlet and report back. The king’s plan backfired when Hamlet figures out what the two of them were up to. Pretty soon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent on a long trip – one from which they never returned.

Still don’t remember them? That’s okay – not many other people do either. In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, everybody they meet has a hard time telling them apart, even though they don’t look alike. Even Rosencrantz has a hard time remembering whether he’s Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.

Tom Stoppard’s ingenious play – first performed fifty years ago this summer – looks at Hamlet from the perspective of two of its minor characters. But in this version, it’s Hamlet, Ophelia, and all the other “important” figures who are the minor characters. Stoppard focuses instead on these two hangers-on who spend their time waiting around for Hamlet, tossing coins, playing rhetorical mind games, and wondering why Hamlet uses such odd, fussy language.

Stoppard is known for using a lot of odd, fussy language too, and there’s plenty of it on display in this play. Some viewers may be put off by the twists and turns he takes, which can be more confusing than any Shakespeare ever dreamed of. And Stoppard’s wit can be so dry and esoteric that you may feel you’ll need a PhD to get all the punchlines. But in the end Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is dazzling in its intricacy and its invention, and it rewards close attention.

Director Emma Watt and her cast do a good job of making Stoppard’s cerebral workout vibrant and accessible. Billy Cohen and Jake McCready – already seen this summer at Princeton Summer Theater as the husbands in God of Carnage, as well as playing leading roles in Assassins – are well-matched in the title roles. Cohen’s flippant, casual ease as Rosencrantz contrasts effectively with McCready’s intellectually restless Guildenstern.

In addition to dealing with Shakespeare’s primary characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also interact with the troupe of actors who appear in the play within a play performed halfway through Hamlet. That troupe is led by The Player (referred to here as The Leading Player), portrayed here by Olivia Nice. For the Player, as Shakespeare noted in another play, all the world’s a stage: Nice is constantly “on,” flashing a sly smile and directing her lines toward the audience as much as to her co-stars. To this Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just two more audience members.

Stoppard didn’t write the Player for a female performer, but Nice’s performance puts a fresh, invigorating spin on the role. However, the production’s other gender switch – casting Queen Gertrude as a man in drag (played by Ryan Gedrich) – is less successful.

Olivia Nice (The Player), Billy Cohen (Rosencrantz), and Jake McCready (Guildenstern). Photo by Ogemdi Ude.
Olivia Nice (The Player), Billy Cohen (Rosencrantz), and Jake McCready (Guildenstern). Photo by Ogemdi Ude.

Keating Helfrich’s costumes define the characters’ attitudes well: while Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the other members of Hamlet’s courts wear traditional Elizabethan garb, the Player and her troupe are in more modern clothing: leather jackets with rhinestones and rivets, jeans and tights, thigh-high boots and sneakers. And Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set uses tiles and drapes to suggest the vastness of the Danish court.

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays through July 31, 2016 at Princeton Summer Theater, performing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call (732) 997-0205, or purchase them online.