Review: ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company

The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a witty, entertaining show with much to say about drama and the theater. Directed by Donald Hicken, Tom Stoppard’s classic 1966 play cleverly looks at several of the minor characters from Hamlet; what do they do when they’re not onstage, when no one’s watching them, or when they’re not interacting with any of the main characters?

Nate Ruleaux as Guildenstern and Clay Vanderbeek as Rosencrantz in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company. Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Clay Vanderbeek as Rosencrantz and Nate Ruleaux as Guildenstern are excellent together, matching each other in verbal dueling as well as physical comedy. During a game of questions, they stand on either side of the stage, moving up and down it as though in a tennis match, each celebrating as the one scores for pointing out the rhetorical fault in the other’s questions. In two later scenes, they take turns pretending to be the King of England, angrily asking the other why they are there until one of them produces the royal letter.

Vanderbeek and Ruleaux also capture the characters’ humanity, with Vanderbeek wondering why they don’t end this unknown role and go home, while Ruleaux is more pragmatic, going along with it even if he doesn’t know where they’re going. Ruleaux snaps at one point, attacking another character; his hands shake in fear and anger afterward. They also have some fun with physical bits involving probability and coin tossing.

Stephen Patrick Martin commands the stage as the Player, head of the troupe of actors performing the play within a play in Hamlet. He matches wits with Vanderbeek and Ruleaux in their verbal back-and-forth while offering cynical insights into the nature of acting and the theatrical world. His admonishment of them for leaving during the middle of their performance is spellbinding, making a powerfully compelling case that actors “only exist when someone’s watching”; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern applaud his performance. He also gives an incredibly dramatic performance near the end that has the audience wondering if he’s acting or if it’s “really” happening.

Connor Padilla brings a cunning to Hamlet. In his first appearance, Padilla makes a great impression as insane, muttering out loud to himself. His conversations with Vanderbeek and Ruleaux are quick and witty, giving away nothing. On the ship, he silently stares at them, smiling, while carrying out his plan. Morganne Chu plays Ophelia with powerful emotion. She breaks down at Padilla’s impassioned “get thee to a nunnery,” crumbling to the floor weeping. As Vanderbeek helps her up, she runs offstage.

Dexter Hamlett gives a regal authority to Claudius, as does Ian Charles to Gertrude. The moment when Claudius addresses Rosencrantz as Guildenstern and Gertrude gently corrects him is amusing and sets up their confusion for who is who. Hamlett as the Player King and Charles as the Player Queen make for great physical comedy, as Charles steps on Hamlett while walking around his corpse. Charles plays the actor Alfred with resignation, pulling a skirt off and on at Martin’s direction, reluctantly going with Vanderbeek and Ruleaux after they “win” him in a coin toss. Phil Bufithis brings gravity to Polonius and a quiet menace as the Player Villain. All the troupe members perform death scenes with great theatricality.

Scenic Designer Salydon Boyken has made a simple yet effective set of dark wood. Two sets of steps lead to a slightly higher section in the back, where actors enter and exit from either side. In the second act, three big wooden crates are on this section, while to the right, a large yellow umbrella conceals one of the characters. Projections Designer Joshua McKerrow uses the backdrop for images of a castle’s interior for act one, and a ship’s mast and sails for act two.

Costume Designer Sally Boyett does a wonderful job. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both wear black pants and boots, a white ruffle shirt, and gray vest; Guildenstern’s vest has a red thread. Later, they have black capes with hoods. The Player has a long black cape, over a shiny, purple jacket and pants. Both Tragedians are in black pants and vest, with black caps, while Ophelia wears a long white lace dress and bonnet, and Claudius has a dark green tunic and cape. Alfred wears a black vest with red fringe and a beige girdle, while Gertrude has a long brown dress, lace collar, and red wig. Polonius wears a dark red and gold tunic with a black headdress.

Morganne Chu as Ophelia and Connor Padilla as Hamlet in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company. Photo by Joshua McKerrow.
Morganne Chu as Ophelia and Connor Padilla as Hamlet in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company. Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Sally Boyett is also the sound designer, providing helpful sound effects. Flutes play a royal tune whenever Claudius and Gertrude enter, and Rosencrantz gives a puzzled look when it sounds like they’re playing inside the crates. Calls from the ship’s crew sound out at the start of act two, and later cannons boom and sounds of fighting ring out.

Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson uses lighting effects to add to the surreal atmosphere. During the pirate attack, the lights flash red. The stage is pitch black at the start of act two, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speaking in the dark. A light shines from behind the umbrella and is later snuffed out. In the end, the lights go out during a crucial moment, providing suspense, and then later slowly dims down.

Donald Hicken does an excellent job as director. The actors navigate the stage and each other easily doing rather complex entrances and exits. They quickly change their costumes, and they flawlessly switch between the modern-day dialogue and Shakespeare’s language. They gleefully capture Stoppard’s dense, witty wordplay, which is funny while also raising interesting metaphysical questions. Some familiarity with Hamlet is helpful; otherwise, it could be confusing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a wonderful way to warm up on a cold February evening.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays through February 24, 2019, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company–1804 West Street in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-415-3513, or purchase them online.