Don’t Hate the Player: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”

The pretty, pretty cast.

Presented by Theatre@First
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Elizabeth Hunter

April 4th – 12th
Davis Square Theatre
Theatre@First on Facebook

Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Somerville) So, weird thing about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, it makes Beckett slightly more palatable and Shakespeare slightly less.

Stoppard’s play riffing on Beckett’s infamous Waiting for Godot is, on the surface, a glance at what’s going on behind the wings during the course of the greatest play ever written in the English language. If we begin to look at life as Stoppard’s head tragedian does (that is a world in which every exit is an entrance somewhere else), we begin to see how this Hamlet fan-fic took shape. Take Gogo and Didi, slap them into some verse poetry, give them tabards and a letter to the English King and wha-bam; there’s Stoppard’s piece.

I don’t much like Waiting for Godot, but if I absolutely have to watch it I definitely prefer it with Shakespearean elements interspersed.

The major problem is that theatre companies which are drawn to performing pieces like R&G are not theatre companies which are equipped to handle the more technical elements of this play. The talent in theatre at first’s production is definitely the cream of the community theatre crop (for the most part at least), but they floundered when presented with the Shakespearean text. In order to sell the strange world where Roz and Guil find themselves, you have to find a way to hyper-Shakespearenize the Shakespeare bits. I’m not going to say the play falls apart otherwise (because it certainly doesn’t; this was a serviceable piece of theatre), but it definitely detracts punch and, let’s face it, this piece needs all the punch it can get. So Theatre@First’s production was lukewarm but not because it lacked talent, simply because it lacked a good text coach.

Mike Haddad and Jason Merrill are particularly fine in their portrayal of the two title gentlemen. Their own surprise with what happens when they open their mouths to speak before the court for the first time and, much to their own amazement, wind up eloquently responding to Gertrude in iambic pentameter, is simply infectious. They manage the quips and barbs of wit required to make this piece a go, and their communal comic timing lends credence to their supposed long-term bromance. Johnbarry Green as the Lead Player adds a creepy and chaotic note which allows him to utter the punctuation marks of Stoppard’s fable without sounding too much like a clue-by-four. His presence was at once imposing, comforting, and utterly confusing… and that’s just the way it’s gotta be.

The fact that this company managed to find a trunkful of the worst wigs this side of Denmark actually adds to the performance rather than detracts from it via some
hyperactive sense of realism. After all, R&G is a meta-meta-theatrical commentary; if we look at (particularly the nested bits of) it and see anything as it should be, then nothing is as it ought to be.

So, yes, I’m left with questions. Is this play telling me that Shakespeare can (and does) just happen to us without any agency of our own? Is “Shakespeare” an allegory for “life”? Or is it just that we never know when someone’s going to swap our letter and have us murdered when we arrive at our destination (which we’re pretty sure doesn’t exist)? These questions are a product of the material rather than the performance (which, I might add, is true of my major quips with what I saw onstage in Davis). Proceed if you’ve got a touch of the philosophical, but don’t go looking for answers. This is definitely the wrong place to find them.

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