By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
*note: Anon It Moves is currently staging Hamlet in repertory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The two shows feature the same cast playing the same characters, and are meant to be viewed, in part, as a pair.
Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” combines the ideas and pace of “Waiting for Godot” with the action and characters of “Hamlet.” Stoppard’s story views the latter play through the eyes of the titular pair, school friends of Hamlet, whom his mother and father send for in order to try to cheer the Prince up, and discover the source his melancholy.
The playwright uses this set up to explore ideas of fate and free will, the existential dread of death, the fragility of identity and more. Like many authors working in the postmodern movement, Stoppard spends time in his work setting and exploring the meaning of the “rules” within his work. Rosencrantz (Joel Patrick Durham) and Guildenstern (Caitlin Fisher-Draeger) seem only able to remember the facts of their lives that Shakespeare provides about them in “Hamlet.”
Thus, neither recalls anything prior to having been summoned to the castle. When Claudius and Gertrude mix up their names, they suddenly do not know which of them is which, either, etc.
It’s an audacious set up, which later writers, like David Foster Wallace or Charlie Kaufman, might have mined for great humor, but Stoppard’s play is pitched closer to despair.
Unlike Shakespeare, Stoppard exhibits little interest in plumbing the psychological depths of his characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are developed and differentiated in only the most basic ways. Durham has the more fun role. Rosencrantz is absent minded, a bit slow, and constantly amazed by things. In his portrayal, Durham imbues him with a vibrant buoyancy. Guildenstern, conversely, is rule-bound, controlling and irritable. Fisher-Draeger inhabits the character quite well, but can’t rescue him (though played by a woman, Guildenstern is male) from its, at times, grating conception.
The play’s showiest part is the First Player (Paul Fusi), who leads the troop of actors from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Stoppard uses the character’s interactions with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to explore questions of performance, reality, social status, and, once again, death.
Fusi’s superb in the part, shifting easily between shame and hauteur, displaying just the right amount of hamminess and employing a wonderfully unplaceable accent.
Stoppard’s play follows a rhythm: the protagonists meet characters from “Hamlet,” receive instructions from them, and then, alone, try to figure out what has happened, how they can proceed, what anything means, and whether they’re allowed to leave. Like “Waiting for Godot,” the play strips away the pretense that, as a text, its job is to entertain an audience, and, instead, dramatizes the terror of seeking, and perhaps not finding, meaning in one’s existence.
Some of its attempts at this are more successful than others. The portion where the players enact a drama foreshadowing the protagonists’ end, for instance, is eerie and profound. Likewise, when playing the game “questions,” Durham and Fisher-Draeger achieve a crackling intensity. Other sequences, though, such as when the two attempt to determine which direction the wind is blowing, or Guoldenstern’s issuing constant variations on the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread,” can feel tedious.
One might assume a play featuring a female Hamlet, a female Guildenstern, and three female players out of five total, would be unlikely to run into problems with transphobia, but unfortunately it’s not so in this case. During a sequence in which the players rehearse “The Murder of Gonzago,” “Hamlet”‘s play within a play, the character Alfred (male actor Murri Lazaroff-Babin) portrays the queen. Lazaroff-Babin’s performance is enacted for cheap laughs, with the supposed joke being that any male-assigned at birth (MAAB) person who exhibits effeminacy in their gender expression is ridiculous, and a subject fit for mockery.
This type of comedy, while sadly common, is retrograde, prejudiced, and hurtful to the groups it targets: transgender women, MAAB queer people and effeminate men. While theater can work to promote empathy and understanding for these groups, who are by far the most common victims of LGBTQ related hate crimes, assaults, and murders, portrayals like this, in reducing them to dehumanized cartoons, merely reinforce the attitudes and stereotypes that fuel such actions.
Pairing this production with “Hamlet” is wise on Anon It Moves’ part, as a fresh familiarity with Shakespeare’s enhances one’s understanding of it. One’s enjoyment of it will likely depend on their interest in philosophical dialogues, and all the questions raised therein. For my part, though I remembered the play fondly from college, it felt at times static and arid here, and I longed for more of the “love” and “blood” that the First Player talked about, and less of the “rhetoric.”
This is by no means to say it’s unsuccessful. The company has done a fine staging of a challenging work. Perhaps, like Guildenstern himself, though, it’s easier to admire than to love.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (in repertory with Hamlet). Anon It Moves, through August 23rd. http://anonitmoves.org/productions/