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This review by Joan Crespi was prepared for the July 9, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Princeton Summer Theater
For those few unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s "Hamlet,"
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two insignificant courtiers summoned
by King Claudius, Prince Hamlet’s newly-married stepfather, to probe
Hamlet’s pervasive melancholy, then to accompany Hamlet from Denmark
to England, where Claudius wants him killed. Life and drama sometimes
turns out otherwise, as the title of Tom Stoppard’s clever, existential
drama reveals. Stoppard’s "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"
is now running at Princeton Summer Theater at the Hamilton Murray
Theater on the Princeton University campus through Sunday, July 13.
It’s a difficult play to do: Stoppard is a cerebral, "talky."
playwright. Some lines do spark laughs. (Is Guildenstern, and so Stoppard,
commenting on the play when he says "No wonder the whole thing
is so stagnant"?) Clearly a reach for student actors, this production
is uneven. But as one audience member commented after the show, "Stoppard
is always worth a look."
Stoppard’s play first appeared in 1966; Shakespeare wrote his about
1601. Both remain highly popular. And both reveal something of the
human condition. Shakespeare’s reveals the dodges and anguish of inaction
in memorable and stirring language; Stoppard probes the inevitability
of death, with no choice involved. Why? Because, in the words of the
Player (commandingly played by Jed Peterson), "It is written.
The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily."
Stoppard has taken these two nobodys — interchangeable to others
and at times to themselves — and presented them as principals
in their own lives. Benjamin Mains is excellent as Rosencrantz. His
facial expressions and sometime antics are telling. Guildenstern,
played by Greg Taubman, warms to the part as the play progresses.
The two puzzled, ill-fated characters are on stage for the play’s
entire duration. (And both have learned, without a fumble, a prodigious
number of lines.)
Raised from youth with Hamlet, and sent for by the king (an issue
thath they mull over endlessly), they bear a letter from Claudius
asking the King of England to behead Hamlet.
Listen to the opening dialogue and you might think you’re watching
a Samuel Beckett play. Coin tossing produces 90 "heads" (and
counting, throughout the play), overturning the laws of probability.
Things are not behaving as they should. Neither is Hamlet. Which gives
cause for both plays.
Stoppard plays with the word and act of death, dwells on its actuality
and shamming (using the players that played at the court and are met
again on shipboard). Death is "unobtrusive, unannounced."
And "we move idly toward eternity."
The play works through dramatic irony: the audience knows something
about the present fate of the two that they do not. This helps hold
the audience during much intellectual, philosophical, or farcical
conversation and game play between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They
spar aimlessly, wittily, over inconsequential subjects. It passes
The players come, a rag-tag bunch, with a cart, on their way to perform
before the king, and provide more opportunity for interplay, for Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern. One of the players, Alfred, a man playing a woman
(Sean Effinger-Dean), says little but takes his greenish taffeta skirt
on and off on command, provoking general laughter. Add his/her little
breasts for grasping.
Here one must mention the costumes: the players are appropriately
and colorfully costumed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, too, are in
fitting Elizabethan costumes — costumer Jessie Leto has caught
the time and mood. David Bengali’s lighting also captures the play’s
more transient moods.
Director Rosemary Rodriguez places the characters, moving
side to side, on the middle and lower levels of a three-level stage.
Appearing on the top level, are the characters from "Hamlet."
(In this interpretation Hamlet is played so broadly he is devoid of
melancholy. All antics, he seems like a clown; Ophelia looks and acts
like a sleazy harlot.) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always appear
below. Rodriguez has chosen to keep the two social classes apart.
While some fragments of "Hamlet" involving Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are woven through the play, this production chooses to
separate, not integrate, them.
In Act III, on board ship, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act out an
imagined scene with the King of England, find and read the letter
to him requesting Hamlet’s death. Hamlet, hidden behind an umbrella,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter the tragedians on board ship
and Guildenstern berates the players for their sham deaths, which
is not actual death.
"Dying is not a game," says this gamesman. After a violent
melee of sword-play (coordinated by Jed Peterson), Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern sleep, and Hamlet replaces the letter requesting his
death with one requesting theirs. They open and read it and learn
of their own deaths."We’ve done nothing wrong!" cries Rosencrantz.
But they won’t escape. So it is written.
As the Player predicted, the play is finished (here, as in "Hamlet’)
when all of the court lie dead.
— Joan Crespi
Theater , Murray Theater, 609-258-7062. $12. Through July 13.
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