By Tina Arth
Watching any play requires a certain level of attention and adaptability, but watching an absurdist, existential tragi-comedy where the characters seem to exist in three separate but interwoven realities calls for a whole new level of cognitive flexibility. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be parsed into so many levels of meaning that a single exposure to the text is quite simply inadequate. Luckily, the HART Theatre’s current production of playwright Tom Stoppard’s classic is staged cleverly enough to provide abundant cues to shifts in perspective, and funny enough to keep the audience thoroughly entertained. Director Peter Stein’s fast-pacing (essential with this show) ensures that nobody will be bored; conversely, nobody has a chance to catch everything – I left the theater determined to find the script and read it at my leisure so that I could linger over both the philosophical and the whimsical wordplay that decorates every scene.
Pretty much everybody is familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so the root tale is in place. However, Stoppard’s play revolves around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old school chums of Prince Hamlet whose minor roles have little effect on the outcome of Hamlet but who, like almost all of Shakespeare’s cast, die at the end. The show opens as Rosencrantz, the more foolishly optimistic and less introspective of the pair, is having a remarkable run of luck – despite the odds, his coin tosses always come up heads. The comparatively somber Guildenstern ponders the meaning of this while they try to figure out where they are, why they have been sent for, and what they are meant to do. The arrival of a wandering troupe of tragedians does nothing to help – the troupe’s leader, Player, makes it very clear that from her perspective the two men exist only to provide an audience for the traveling actors. Ultimately, most of the characters from Hamlet appear, but with a sense of unreality that makes them the play within a play within a play. Trust me - it’s a LOT more fun than it sounds. And there are pirates – who doesn’t love pirates?
Because words are so plentiful and critical to the show, projection, timing and enunciation are especially important. Shakespeare’s original lines make brief appearances (in scenes between Hamlet and the other members of the court), but the best dialogue consists of brief monologues by Angela Van Epps (“Player”) and rapid-paced exchanges between Les Ico (“Rosencrantz”) and Dan Kroon (“Guildenstern”). Van Epps is eloquent, charismatic, and winningly assertive – even when we (like the two main characters) are not quite sure what’s going on, she is reassuringly clear about the role of the audience and the tragedians. Ico and Kroon work best together in moments of physical comedy reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, and their puzzled haplessness repeatedly provides the evening’s biggest laughs. An added bonus is the pacing and clarity of Ico’s delivery, which ensures that none of his character’s best material will be lost in the action.
Among the uniformly competent peripheral players, John Ollis’ “Polonius” is particularly memorable – he captures his character’s arrogant ignorance and is fun to watch while alive, while he is truly unforgettable as a corpse being dragged across the stage. Blaine Vincent III (“Hamlet”) is most effective in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene with Ophelia – the authenticity and power of his anger are an unexpected bonus.
Cassie Finley’s costuming is detailed and elaborate enough to help identify characters for a potentially puzzled audience. The set design (by Sam U. Ells – one suspects that’s an alias!) is perfect – just hanging sheets to provide ambiguity of place and time, augmented as necessary by rudimentary structures that suggests a stage, castle, and boat without introducing anything that might spoil the evening with hints of literal reality.
Despite the show’s complexity, it is terrifically accessible – one obviously pre-teen audience member was laughing along with the rest of us. Director Stein has found a nice balance between Keystone Kops antics and serious existentialism, and his cast fulfills his vision nicely.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through June 19th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.