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.
Ros: That's it….You remember that – this man woke us up.
Ros: We were sent for.
Ros: That's why we're here. Traveling.
You get the idea. New York City is fresh from a memorable production of Waiting for Godot. We welcome Gogo and Didi putting on a road picture: The Road to Elsinore starring Bob Guildenstern and Bing Rosencrantz.
Together the pair meld well into the two sides of the same coin, a coin they may have in pocket, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead belongs the Player King: the voice of the playwright, the voice of the song of the canon from the Greeks onward. Only the Player King has free will, Only he has some control over all the chaos in the rotten state of Denmark. The charismatic Erik Jonsun maneuvers his troupe of Tragedians, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and the audience, seated in the round like members of the Danish court, into realization: "Don't you see?! We're actors – we're the opposite of people!"
Mr. Jonsun is very persuasive as the Player. I found him to be forceful even before I read his biography in the playbill. It turns out that he is a veteran of the US Coast Guard and the Army Infantry. He received the Purple Heart in 2004 for service in Iraq. Mr. Jonsun indeed knows "the soldiers' music and the rites of war."
Hamlet, Tim Weinert, strides emphatically through his Shakespearian scenes, tossing Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia (Marguerite Forrest), Polonius (Tom Lawson, Jr.), his mother (Tootie Larios), and a robotic Claudius (Doug Williford) in his wake. His mode and makeup are as Richard Burton in his Hamlet or Richard Alpert in Lost.
The efficient stage design, built around a directionless compass, is by George Allison. The Tragedians are Esteban Benito, Meghan Brown, Horacio Lazo, James O'Brien, Janine Pangburn, Diane Terrusa, Aki Tsuchimoto, Therese Tucker, and Rodney Allen Umble. All are opulently costumed by Karen Ann Ledger.
In a poignant moment at the beginning of the play, the portraits are taken down from their places on the walls, and the minor characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the major characters, mirroring our own existential anxieties in their comic squabbles. At the end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters' spotlight moment fades; they are relegated back to offstage action. The Hamlets return to their portraitures. Stoppard riffs on Oscar Wilde's "The good end happily, the bad end unhappily, That is what fiction means." In Stoppard's theatrical world, "The bad end unhappily. The good unluckily." As for this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I'll let reviewer Guildenstern speak for me: "Brilliantly re-created – if these eyes could weep!…Rather strong on the metaphor, mind you. No criticism – only a matter of taste."
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead will run through November 22nd at the Gloria Maddox Theatre.