Review: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" performers Charles Decker Jr., Andi Courtade, Demy Marti, Kelli Burns, and Amanda Stevenson.

If you’re going to the Heritage Theatre Group production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” purely out of curiosity to see their twist on gender-reversed roles, first understand it is perhaps the least absurdist encounter you’ll have with this classic existentialist comedy. In fact, the timely topic of pronoun use that seems to bring such heated political debate in the ‘real’ world is introduced here with no fanfare; there’s an assumption that it gets quickly beyond question for the audience.

It’s a clever nuance considering this is a play about questioning everything, at least from Guildenstern’s (Elisabeth Hatfield) perspective. Director Krista Pennington is on to something here.

“Rosentcrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard
Heritage Theatre Group
Spectrum Theater
August 10-19 | heritagetheatregr.org

It can be quite revealing how fast one does accept the fact that women in dresses are referred to as ‘he’ and men in pants as ‘she’ in the play, as the words stay true as originally written. The simple pronoun/gender switch is swiftly normalized, assumed, and we move on with the story. To be honest, this interpretation of the play is probably less problematic for today’s general audience than would be a strict adherence to traditional Shakespearean protocol during the premiere of “Hamlet,” the play around which “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” revolves. If staged before 1660, women were not allowed to be actors and feminine roles were played by boys in dresses. Imagine that in light of recent political rhetoric.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" performers Rachel Finan and Demy Marti.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” performers Rachel Finan and Demy Marti.

Also revealed in this reversal is the lopsided opportunities for complex characters based on conventional gender roles. With the leading roles now filled with women, and the reverse for men, some viewers may experience a cognitive dissonance. If it feels odd that the men in the play have but a handful of spoken lines and serve primarily as adornments and objects of desire, ask yourself why it feels that way. Then go to the local Cineplex and pay attention.

The Player (Rachel Finan, expertly embracing the meta aspect of the role) attempts to explain to the logical and pedantic Guildenstern, “Truth is only that which is taken to be true. It’s the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn’t make any difference so long as it is honored. One acts on assumptions. What do you assume?”

Classic stories cut through to universal themes and philosophical reflection, and the timeless message of this 1966 play resonates strongly still today—especially delivered in the context of the current ‘fake news’ climate. As we all act on assumptions, can we at least question that which we assume? Take heed the words of The Player, who suggests that life is performative and those that know this negotiate the world perhaps more successfully than those that do not.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" performers Brooke Bruce, Lis Hatfield, Rachel FInan, Andi Courtade, Demy Marti, and Amanda Stevenson.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” performers Brooke Bruce, Lis Hatfield, Rachel FInan, Andi Courtade, Demy Marti, and Amanda Stevenson.

It wasn’t the largest audience the Spectrum Theatre has seen for an opening night, but you’d hardly know it with the volume of laughter emanating from the seats. This is a play that relies heavily on pacing and rapid, interconnected dialogue, and the actors did not disappoint in their delivery.

The set was as sparse as the verbal wit was thick, which worked well to keep the focus on the words—a necessity in keeping up with the banter.

Important too is the physical comedy, incorporated here in both facial expression and exaggerated bodily movement. It’s notable that the predominantly non-speaking Tragedians (Andrea Courtade, Demy Marti, Amanda Stevenson) commanded some of the biggest laughs through their physical antics. Rosencrantz’ (Brooke Bruce) gangly shuffling and constant elbow-axis pointing elevated the presence of the character and played well off Hatfield’s more closed-in, contemplative persona.

Each was supported well with costume design working in harmony with the distinctive character’s attributes. Interesting lighting effects (Chuck Fortenbacher) brought an abstract intensity to the subject matter, helping provide underlying tension to the surface humor. The two 10-minute intermissions were bridged deftly with music that felt simultaneously light-hearted and sinister, a nice attention to detail. Composer credit is given to Troy Hatfield.

For a play in which every word matters, it would help if some of the actors work on better projection, and in the less prominent roles there’s still room for a touch of character development to round out the show. Overall, though, this is a cast and crew with a solid grasp of the existentialist thought ingrained in Stoppard’s work, and with the skill to pull it off.

*Photos courtesy of Heritage Theatre Group/Paul Brand

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