“Words, words; they are all we have to go on,” says Guildenstern, one of the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s classic play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In its most recent incarnation at the ’62 Center, professor David Eppel, his Acting III class and a team of highly accomplished designers turned Stoppard’s words into a theatrical experience of near-beauty.
The primary objective of the production was to provide the means for dramaturgical investigations on the part of the student actors. With that intent, the work of Stoppard is aptly suited as it references Plato and Beckett in addition to its all-too-Shakespearean frame. However, this can have the negative impact of leaving audiences with too much to figure out on their own without the opportunity to pore over the text for hours on end, as Stoppard’s prose often seems to warrant.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Besides posing as Hamlet’s old friends, their only role in the classic is to deliver Hamlet to England with a letter ordering his execution. However, Hamlet escapes after altering the letter to contain instructions to kill the unsuspecting messenger duo during an unfortunate pirate attack, a moment that is one of the high points of Eppel’s production.
So how does Stoppard re-envision this familiar story? By putting both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – who seem to have forgotten their Shakespearean vocabularies and taken on voices 1/3 British fops, 1/3 British Empiricists and 1/3 all-too-cheeky Oxford scholars – at the forefront, while in Hamlet other more “important” things are happening, like murder, incest and revenge – events which become entertainment fodder for a troupe of clown-like Players.
This production has the privilege of having Ilya Khodosh ’08 and Terry Tamm ’08 in the lead roles as the virtually interchangeable Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively. The differences between the two performances, however, are astounding and quite entertaining. Khodosh brings back more of his melancholic Vanya-esque shtick and provides an angstier, more Chekhovian Guildenstern, while Tamm portrays a Rosencrantz full of expressivity and volume. Together they provide a perfect balance that gives the audience a brief respite from the overbearing prose.
In one particularly memorable scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to imagine what questioning Hamlet about his condition would be like, and the pair pulled off the ensuing back and forth like an Abbott-and-Costello-meets-Monty-Python-meets-Oscar-Wilde extravaganza. Khodosh and Tamm also shine in the play’s biggest challenge – going in and out of Shakespeare’s world and keeping their neuroses intact without somehow hideously shifting character.
The company brings in delightful renditions of Hamlet, taking Shakespeare’s masterpiece and bringing with it the theatricality of clown. One particularly hilarious moment is Eben Hoffer ’10’s turn as Claudius – all grandiose posturing and over-exaggerated sexual bravado – together with Katie Ort ’08 as a lusty and bawdy Gertrude.
Set designer David Morris’ sparse but precise setting demonstrates how less is sometimes more – so much more. Lighting designer Julie Seitel manages so much versatility and expressivity with Morris’ daring yellow floor that for a second I forgot I was in the CenterStage, which is infamous for its inability to be anything but the money it cost to put there. In addition, costume designer Kate Foster ’08’s mixture of Shakespearean garb and modern chic give the look of the play the edge it needs to balance the two worlds it attempts to inhabit. The only flaw has to be the generic sound design, that while not garish by any means, seemed to be from the stock Stoppardian library rather than meeting the high expectations set forth by the other designers.
Eppel should be commended for bringing to the play creative and active staging that brings us closer to the action. In one of my favorite moments of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern address what seems to be the audience by facing us – but their expressions bring us to believe they are gazing at what is nothing but an abyss. The yellow border of the stage floor ends just before the audience begins, creating a black line that holds an eternity between the actors and us. Here is where Stoppard and the production bring a cheeky postmodern idea into a miraculous theatrical moment. All in all, Eppel’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead features memorable performances, awe-inspiring design and creative staging that will remain for me far more than “just words.”