Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 26, 2009

A scene from the  Writers’ Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
A scene from the Writers’ Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered in 1967, alternate point-of-view tellings of well-known stories were not nearly ubiquitous as they are now. Now, after more than 40 years and countless stories employing the device, the work that launched Stoppard's career as a playwright remains, in my opinion, unequalled. Any time one sees a favorite work produced, pleasure at seeing it brought to life vies with trepidation that it will be done badly. In the case of the Writers' Theatre production, directed by Michael Halberstam, some few fears come to pass, but pleasure wins out by a wide margin.

Although I've seen some of this company's work elsewhere, this was my first trip to their Tudor Court venue in Glencoe. As the staff emphasizes, the space is intimate, seating 108 in stadium fashion on three sides of the performance area. Stoppard's text, deceptively simple, presents a staging challenge to any company, but Halberstam is ably assisted by scenic designer Collette Pollard and lighting designer Keith Parham in rising to it.

As our heroes make their way to Elsinore at the top of the show, Halberstam uses the floor in front of a traditional, if shallow, stage backed by the usual red curtain. When the players arrive, they command the stage, turning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into their unwilling audience.

Upon arrival at Elsinore, the curtain rises to reveal that the real proscenium is upstage (from the audience's perspective). In what may be the only directorial decision that is even arguably a bit heavy handed, most of the cast of Hamlet play to the empty house suggested by the trompe l'oeil mural and footlights, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain in profile, caught between the worlds of one play and the other.

For the final act, a set of sails is lowered in front of the mural. A network of portable railings moved on to the floor establish one deck, and on the main stage, Hamlet lounges in a deck chair behind an enormous umbrella. The frantic entrances and exits are achieved via a series of barrels accessed from below stage.

Throughout, the production uses the lighting design to signal the transition from the world of Stoppard's play to the world of Shakespeare's. Modified house lights dominate during scenes involving only main characters and the players; action within Hamlet's world is indicated by "theatrical" lighting. The shifts between the two happen instantaneously, giving the audience a taste of the bewildering, anxiety-dream pace of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's progress through the play.

I only fully appreciated the skill of Halberstam's staging in retrospect, as it does precisely what it needs to do: It facilitates the pace of the play and frees the audience up to appreciate the genius of Stoppard's language. In casting Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as, respectively, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Halberstam treats the audience to two very different interpretations of Stoppard, but these dovetail in quite interesting ways.

Kane is deadly serious, not just in terms of characterization, but in his entire approach. His projection, elocution, and gravity would feel appropriate on the most prestigious stage of the largest house imaginable. He is self-consciously acting at every moment. Fortunato, in contrast, is low-key and amiable, playing Rosencrantz as though he hasn't gotten the memo that he is playing anyone at all. Kane attacks the dialogue; Fortunato lobs it back, wholly unaware of the absurdist spin he's put on the conversation.

Much like the choices in the lighting design, this disconnect is jarring to the audience, but jarring with a purpose: These two anti-characters are both worst nightmare and best friend to one another. Kane and Fortunato work this volatile chemistry wonderfully.

If anything, the two of them are so successful together that the presence of other characters feels like an intrusion. If the other characters are Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia, and so on, this is not much of a problem. After all, the play's central joke is inspired by Shakespeare's tongue-in-cheek use of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as plot devices, barely integrated into the fabric of the play at all.

However, I did find Terry Hamilton's as Claudius, Karen Janes Woditsch as Gertrude, and Frederic Stone's Polonius to be off putting in their two-dimensionality. Between the aforementioned decision to have these characters play to the unseen upstage house and the brutally rushed pace of many of their scenes, I had little to go on with these actors' interpretations. I was left with the impression that Halberstam was almost impatient with the Shakespeare that Stoppard saw fit to leave intact, which seems . . . somewhat off the playwright's message.

John Hoogenakker's Hamlet runs counter to this trend, though. He is believable as an interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in the play's final scenes, he crucially steps up-fruity rum drink in hand-as the unexpected villain of the piece, winning the audience to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's side for good and for all as he swaps the letters and seals their fate.

I am reluctant to describe the Player as a flaw-or even as not a strength-in this production. Having thoroughly enjoyed Allen Gilmore's turn in The Arabian Nights at Lookingglass, I was very much looking forward to his performance here, and he did not disappoint, exactly. He is fluid, antic, and charismatic, which the role demands. He is also flamboyant to such a degree that it occasionally bleeds into a flaming stereotype. It isn't a constant in the performance, but when it does appear it is disappointing in this play, in this production, and from this actor.

A subtler issue with the Player is one with rapport. Kane and Fortunato, as previously mentioned, have their interactions down to a science. Similarly, the Player and his tragedians function as a well-oiled machine (particularly notable among a very strong group are Joey Steakley and Gregory Isaac). When these two forces collide on stage, there are intermittent sparks, but as a group they don't reliably ignite.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues through December 6 at Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL. For more information visit the Writers' Theatre website


Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.