Hamlet enthusiasts- delight! You can see this play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” then next weekend see Hamlet at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. A happy coincidence or careful planning? Or as Rosencrantz would say, or is it Guildenstern, “audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in.” I believe I will be going to both. So, there’s that.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a theater of the absurd play, written by Stoppard, and meant to fill in the “gaps” of Hamlet. Essentially, this is the nonsense at times that goes on in the “wings” or backstage when R&G are waiting to go on stage for the production of Hamlet. They are minor characters in Hamlet, with a dubious characterization. Hard to tell apart and often ridiculed by Hamlet, their quest is to find out why he is not himself. The King and Queen beg their information, and offer them a free all expense paid trip to England as a sort of reward, oh yeah and they have to take Hamlet with them.
The funniest part of the play itself in construction is the role reversal. All the major characters in Hamlet are reduced to caricatures (hilarious ones at that), and the minor roles of R&G and the Players coming to the castle in Act 2 to preform “The Murder of Gonzago” take center stage.
The minor nuisances first, there are no small roles, only small actors. A truth held up in this production by the dazzlingly whimsical Dominic Gladden as Hamlet, and Elizabeth Ung as Ophelia. This pair is not only breathtaking to watch but side-splittingly funny. Gladden’s backward blind bluff down the stairs, with his pants “down gyved to his ankles,” skull boxer briefs ablazing is a highlight worth waiting for. And Ung’s facial expressions are so capriciously captivating.
The costumes, by the way, were my favorite element of the play from a design perspective. Costumers Deana Fisher Brill & Maggie Flanigan really outdid themselves with Renaissance inspired looks made completely out of denim. You read that right, jeans. They took them apart, reworked, restructured and made masterpieces. I loved the attention to detail on this and nods to the past while being thoroughly modern.
The set and stage were a giant skull, a bit overt, and somewhat cumbersome at times, it seems to look better than it was for the actual stage and use. The two boxes on top, by the way, reminded me of the two trashcans from “Endgame” at Motorhouse with Bankerd in it as well. I know Stoppard was heavily fawning on Beckett when he wrote this, it just made me have an ah ha moment.
Next, let’s address the King and Queen. Kay-Megan Washington is regal and refined and does an excellent fake distress cry on stage. Tom Piccin is an apt Claudius, careful but a bit obtuse, keeping an eye on everyone at all times and a little shook. Together, their arms daintily holding on, they command the action and don’t get too tied up in this mess.
Shout outs also to Thom Sinn as Polonius, who is presented in the most ludicrous manner. It is a joy to watch him make his voice crack, his eyes wander, and his stature sag at the very thought of having to do something. He chases the others around, much like R &G lag after Hamlet, and the underscoring is just right.
The Tragedians almost steal the show. Bethany Mayo as The Player is a breath of fresh air. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are great (more on them next) but they do get bogged down with their words and rhetoric at times. Mayo infuses this part with energy, and enthusiasm. She waves her arms and toots her whistle and makes sure everyone is ready for the big dramatic entrance. Or exit. Or whatever it is they are doing. No one really knows. Rory Kennison as Alfred is delightfully droll. Kennison is witty, charming, and has a sly smile that seems to shine just for you. The other player, Horatio, so aptly named, was portrayed by Michael Panzarotto. I am not sure he utters a single word on stage. As a mute and mime, he is truly astounding. His comedic timing is golden. And the third tragedian is you. That’s right, you get a chance every night in a completely random drawing to star on stage. The night I attended the one and only Justin Johnson got picked. You guys are lucky he didn’t upstage you too bad (lol). Hope this continues to add a bit of spontaneity and fun into a sometimes sober evening.
And then there’s the comic duo running this show. Logan Davidson and Matt Wetzel. Although interchangeable in Hamlet, they are very much recognizable and distinct in this play. Wetzel shows his disbelief and exasperation at Davidson’s antics. He often waxes philosophical and possibly delves a bit deeper than his counterpart. He has no time for this type of play and is often looking for the “something they ought to be doing.” He seems a bit like the keeper, the leader, the Vladimir (Godot reference) to Davidson’s Estragon. Davidson is so much fun to laugh along with. Their coin tossing routine and sheer joy at the most mundane things is the real heart of this play. They make all the best faces, twisting their mouth around in ways that perfectly punctuate the audience’s thoughts on Wetzel’s ramblings as well. Although sheerly stunning as a team, their witticisms and wonderful wiles get old after awhile. Especially toward the end, I felt myself becoming less and less interested. It was hard to keep that kind of energy going for a play that is more than 2 hours and 30 minutes long, even if you did give us an intermission.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is absurdist theater at its finest. It is the heart of Stoppard’s works and if you have never seen it on stage, do yourself a favor and check it out. Bankerd does a stupendous job of getting lots of raw talent to combine, meld, and form something like a dew- no wait that’s a soliloquy, wrong play. Something like a pirate ship? No, something like a unicorn? Wrong again, it will come to me. In the meantime, keep flipping that coin and waiting in the wings for your big break. May the odds be ever in your favor.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go see this well-thought out and thoroughly talented cast present utter nonsense to you in cool costumes while standing on a giant skull island balcony. Like nothing you’ve seen before, FPCT is setting the bar high for this season with works that challenge their conventional standings. Bankerd and team are fun to watch and more fun to laugh along with. I can’t wait to see what is coming next!
Running time two hours and forty minutes with one intermission. Running through May 5th at Fells Point Corner Theater.