Sunday, October 14, 2018

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (A Noise Within 2018 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Craig Schwartz
Hamlet is regarded by many as perhaps the greatest literary achievement of mankind. Most of the play’s characters, however, might have different feelings about it, as they do not make it to the end. Among those that die along the way are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two guys who were once friends with Hamlet but come under the employ of the duplicitous, murderous Claudius. They aren’t in all that many scenes, but Tom Stoppard puts them center stage in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, the title of which acknowledges their demise from the get-go. When reading Hamlet, you sometimes wonder how Hamlet could have ever considered these two to be friends. They don’t seem to have any of his intellectual or philosophical curiosity. But in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, they do. Or, at least Guildenstern does. Or is it Rosencrantz? In Hamlet, the two are often viewed as interchangeable, and in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, several references are made to that, to the extent that they themselves often don’t know who is who. This idea of identity is one of the subjects the play delves into. But it is also about the question of how much power a person has over the direction or course his or her life takes. Sometimes it feels like we’re just driven along by events, by circumstances, by forces outside of ourselves, and it doesn’t matter what we do. But don’t worry – this is an extremely funny play.

A Noise Within’s new production of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is thoroughly enjoyable, and while it may cause you to ponder certain key elements of your existence, it will more often have you laughing aloud. The set is fairly simple, with two stone staircases, one on each side of the stage. A translucent scrim is upstage, behind which a ladder is visible. At the edge of the thrust stage is a series of electric candles acting as footlights, that also seem to act as a barrier to the play’s two main characters. When the play opens, Guildenstern (Rafael Goldstein) is seated center stage, casually tossing coins. Rosencrantz (Kasey Mahaffy) runs around, calling out “Heads” each time a coin lands. After a time, Guildenstern gets up, but continues tossing the coins. It’s interesting, because immediately a distinction is made between the two, as Guildenstern moves about as he desires, albeit in a limited space, while Rosencrantz’s movement seems, at least at this point, dictated by the coins’ movement. They are struck by the improbability of the coins always landing heads up. I love the joy with which Rosencrantz exclaims, “I’ve never known anything like it!” Guildenstern is more troubled by the phenomenon, and wishes to explore the meaning behind it. Rosencrantz is caught off guard by Guildenstern’s sudden command, “Discuss,” clearly not having expected a need to take part in Guildenstern’s rumination.

After Guildenstern suggests they move forward, they march side-by-side to the edge of the stage, stopping before the footlights. There is a sudden lighting change, as well as a magical sound, giving the impression that they are being toyed with by the fates, the universe or the gods. The lighting changes whenever other characters are about to enter, suggesting a change in their world is only brought on by other people. It is the group of actors, led by The Player (Wesley Mann), that first enter their sphere. Mann gives an excellent performance. His delivery of “We can give you a tumble if that’s your taste” is playful and saucy, getting a big laugh from the audience. Likewise, all the following dialogue that basically paints The Player as a sort of pimp receives laughter. When Rosencrantz makes the introductions, he gets his own name wrong, yet isn’t at all surprised by this strange lapse in his knowledge. The Player too contributes to the theme of chance and fate, saying “We have no control.” What’s interesting also is that, though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to have no control over their exits and entrances, they are able to halt the players and keep them from leaving. And later we learn from The Player that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did in fact leave them (while they were in the middle of a performance for them, no less), but the audience doesn’t see this. So though the two never actually leave the stage, other characters do see them as entering and exiting.

Most of the play’s other characters enter from upstage, through a gap in the scrim. They come in like bright, powerful explosions into the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, accompanied by lighting and sound changes, and then leave. The real action is always elsewhere, and while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relieved to finally have something happen, they are even more relieved when the others exit. In fact, after meeting with Claudius (Jonathan Bray) and Gertrude (Abby Craden), as well as Polonius (Apollo Dukakis), the first thing Rosencrantz says upon their exits is “I want to go home.” Good instincts, eh? He seems to know he’s out of his depth. At times, the lines of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz seem to echo lines we know from Hamlet. For example, Guildenstern says “Words, words, they’re all we have to go on,” making us think of Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” And when Guildenstern says “That is the question,” we can’t help but think of Hamlet’s most famous speech. By the way, the entire scene in which Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet is hilarious. And, later, when Guildenstern asks The Player what the dumb show is for, he is likely speaking for many in the audience who have seen Hamlet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look out at the audience on the lines about hoping someone interesting will come along. Guildenstern asks, “See anyone?” Rosencrantz answers: “No. You?” Guildenstern says, “No.” Of course we laugh, and that laughter is aimed at ourselves, at the idea that none of us is interesting. But actually they don’t see us. Unlike some of the other characters of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t allowed soliloquys and asides. They aren’t given that avenue of escape, nor that element of control. They can’t bring others into their world. Or, for that matter, keep them out. At one point, Rosencrantz blurts out, “We have no control, none at all,” a sudden desperate realization. Before that, each asks if the other is hungry. Neither is, which is another hint that things aren’t real, or that perhaps they already are dead, as the play’s title suggests. And that dialogue, in fact, leads to questions about death. The Player seems to know the future, rehearsing the end of Hamlet before it happens (in what might be my favorite scene of the production), even indicating the number of corpses that will be seen on stage. It is almost has if he is a god, showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their futures, though perhaps also indicating that none of it is real. As The Player says, “Truth is only that which is taken to be true.”

There are no weak performances in this production, but there are some stand-outs, including of course the two leads, in rather demanding parts (hey, even Hamlet gets a few rather lengthy breaks in his play). And though other characters have trouble distinguishing between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we in the audience certainly do not. The third particularly remarkable performance is that by Wesley Mann as The Player. Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead was directed by Geoff Elliott. It runs through November 18th, in repertory with A Picture Of Dorian Gray. There are two brief intermissions, and the performance lasts approximately two and a half hours. Of course, the more familiar you are with Hamlet, the more you will enjoy this play. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. There is free parking in the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure at 149 N. Halstead Street.

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