Spotlight: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Tom Stoppard's late-'60s farce depicts bit players from Hamlet during the interstices between their appearances in the main drama, while they hang out and wait for the next thing to happen to them. It is a deeply witty and subversive work, well staged here by Theatre Pro Rata (they perform this work in repertory, alternating with Hamlet itself). The play opens with Guildenstern (Jonathan Peterson) flipping coins that come up heads every time, while the good-natured Rosencrantz (Edward Linder) scoops them into his vest. They're trying to piece together where they are, and what they're doing, when the Hamlet cast bursts onstage and begins jabbering at them (Guildenstern responds, hilariously, by whipping out a black-and-yellow Cliff's Notes edition of Hamlet). The play proceeds to lampoon and mock perhaps the most canonical work in the English language. Joseph Papke's Hamlet arrives on the scene reading the Merck Manual of psychiatric maladies, a cadaverous Thin White Duke ghoulishly wandering his castle. What emerges is how, from a certain point of view, Hamlet can be seen as a nutty, capricious bloodbath. Sam L. Landman is a standout as the leader of a small acting troupe (hired in the original to torment Claudius with guilt). Landman's is the only character that grasps the odd netherworld in which they exist, as incidental players in someone else's drama. Most importantly, director Carin Bratlie's cast achieves a tautness that does justice to the mental labyrinths kicked up by the dialogue. Linder's frustrated defeatism and Peterson's goofy cluelessness serve the material well, and their delivery of Stoppard's surreal gems is frequently pitch perfect. In a play in which England is dismissed as "a conspiracy of cartographers," and hairs are split regarding the distinction between not being on boats and having not been on boats, a certain delicacy is required. This production provides it, and the result is able surrealism in a moral vacuum, much as one imagines Stoppard intended it.
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