Let’s face it — every play, no matter how brilliant the author, how clever the direction, or how stunning the acting is not everyone’s “cuppa tea.” And while “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” has been judged “a stunning absurdist existentialist tragicomedy” by many important critics (and that’s certainly a mouthful), not everybody goes to summer theater to have to ponder just what the playwright is trying to say — and Tom Stoppard is clearly among the trickiest writers around. So if you go to the Hamilton Murray Theater for the Princeton Summer Theater’s latest production, expect to have to work a bit.
You are seldom going to have the opportunity to see a finer mounting of the play. Director Emma Watt has assembled an extraordinary cast for the production. And yet, on opening night, a noticeable number of the audience left at intermission — not willing to spend the time or apparently the energy to discover for themselves what Stoppard was exploring, what he was questioning. There will always be those who want merely to be entertained, want to attend a musical, want the evening to be “easy.” They should be warned — this is not the play for you.
The 1966 work takes a pair of minor characters from the Bard’s “Hamlet” and through them invents a satirical examination of not only that play, but life itself. It is as if Laurel and Hardy take the leading roles, punch in a few of the Danish characters, but do it as if “Waiting for Godot” were playing in the background.
Stoppard gives us only subtle clues as to his rules. The principal characters mix themselves up from time to time. Rosencrantz (brilliantly played by Billy Cohen) seems to have a fear of uncertainty, and Guildenstern (also stunningly played by Jake McCready) shows a tinge of Socratic stoicism. Heading up a company of travelling players is Olivia Nice — who comes very close to stealing entire scenes Assigned to very small roles are the likes of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia, and Polonius.
Director Watt has written a note in the program that should be read by everyone in the audience. It suggests that in a Stoppard play there is always another question. Indeed that really is the theme of the evening and a distinct problem for those wanting for a musical. She calls it “Stoppard’s madness” and finds joy in finding a method of providing some of the answers.
And she gets plenty of help from set designer Jeffrey van Velson, lighting designer Alex Manner, and especially costume designer Keating Helfrich. All focus on the minimal, but it is tremendously effective. And none of them seem particularly scared of an absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Through Sunday, July 31, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m. $24.50 to $29.50. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.