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Theatre Review (NYC): Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Gloria Maddox

There should be a rule, unwritten perhaps, but written would be nice too, that wherever Hamlet is played, there shall be a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead nearby. The sheer geographic proximity between the two plays in New York City right now adds a delicious layer of irony onto the latter, a Tom Stoppard piece of theatre that is a skyscraper of incongruities. Two minor characters from Hamlet wander 18 blocks south through midtown traffic and end up at the T. Schreiber Studio to discuss matters both existential and pre-determined.

Adding a layer of irony to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may put the whole play, dense with derivative comedy and tragedy, in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own ideas, but this production, directed with precision and wit by Cat Parker, stands strong. It holds up under the immeasurable weirdness of Mr. Stoppard's art – the "un-, sub-, supernatural forces" that swarm through this wild discourse on Shakespeare, Beckett, theatre in general, and mankind in particular.

Photo credit: Gili Getz
Outside of the recent Sunday matinee, runners walked home with New York City Marathon medals around their neck. Inside the Gloria Maddox Theatre, Julian Elfer (right) as Guildenstern and Eric Percival as Rosencrantz (or is it the other way around?) prepared themselves for a marathon of sorts, a verbal sprint to their pre-ordained – "for that is what was written" – finish. Their entrance, their starting line, is surrounded by portraits of famous Hamlets who look down on their old school mates, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz: Sarah Bernhardt and John Barrymore, and their theatrical descendants: Sir Lawrence, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline whose Ophelia, Diane Verona, would go on to play Ethan Hawke's Gertrude, and of course, the current Hamlet, Jude Law, looking distracted by reviews that may have been less than kind. 

Don't worry, Mr. Law. John Lahr in the New Yorker liked you, and that is certainly a rich gift.

Mr. Percival, bearing some resemblance to Gary Oldman (who was Rosencrantz in the 1990 film written and directed by Mr. Stoppard), is the comedy mask of the pair. Blissfully unaware – except at moments of extreme clarity ("It's all over my depth!") – and choosing to remain that way, Rosencrantz is the voice of the audience. He wants a beginning, middle, ending. He demands some sustained action. It is a wonderfully comic role, and Mr. Percival has great fun with it. He has all the required physical comedy with some talent at magic tricks thrown in, an advantage given all the coin tosses Rosencrantz must win at the expense of probability.

Julian Elfer, winner of this year's New York Innovative Theatre Award for Best Actor in Twelfth Night brings more than enough intensity to Guildenstern, a character whom I always saw as the the voice of the critic. He is a "mass of prejudice" even in the eyes of his friend. Suitably unlikable, Mr. Elfer's Guildenstern dismisses the Tragedians, en route to Elsinore to play for the royal family: "I was prepared. But it's this, is it? No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only this – a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes."

Yep, that's all the theatre is, G. And don't you love it?

Both Mr. Percival and Mr. Elfer, while waiting for Hamlet, excel at the remarkable and remarkably derivative Beckettian dialogue. They are Estragon and Vladimir:

Guildenstern: Do you remember the first thing that happened today?

Rosencrantz: I woke up, I suppose. Oh – I've got it now – that man, a foreigner, he woke us up –

Guil: A messenger.

About Kate Shea Kennon