Brooklyn Durs & Max Jablow. Courtesy Crystal Ludwick Photo
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jennifer Pennington
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Tom Stoppard may not have created the notion of meta-theatricality but he established his reputation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play that quickly became a milestone in Western theatre and influenced a tendency for heady self-awareness in generations of future playwrights.
Stoppard elevated two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to lofty cultural heights so that the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have become shorthand for self-referential context. The pair is always just offstage from the iconic scenes of that most famous play, and the melancholy Dane himself becomes a supporting character in their existential narrative. More importantly, The Player, seen in Hamlet leading a theatrical troupe visiting the Danish Royal Court, leads R&G and the audience through the paces of Stoppard’s dense intellectual exercises.
R&G done poorly can be a slog, and usually, that comes from taking it too seriously. It’s crucial to have fun with the material because Stoppard is a jester commenting on the form and presence of Western Theatre at a turning point. The two characters are famously introduced repeatedly tossing a coin that only comes up heads, a foreshadowing of the play’s theme of chance and improbability.
Jennifer Pennington understands all of this and directs mostly for the laughs, wisely letting the Meta aspects bubble up through. Her ensemble carries themselves with style and energy, but four performances carry the weight.
Hamlet is here unburdened of the psychological heavy lifting in his own play, and Lucas Nofsinger leans into the distracted air of Stoppard’s version so that he comes off like a vapid rock star. William Ngong brings his authoritative presence to The Player, never forcing the necessary degree of academic gravitas but delivering sobriety and wisdom.
Max Jablow is a spritely and mischievous Rosencrantz. His take on the character is slightly less cognizant of the stakes, tagging along with his partner, but Jablow shows good energy and comic chops. As Guildenstern, Brooklyn Durs is keenly alive with the dawning awareness of their fate, the slight more intelligent of the two characters. Durs is an emotional live wire, the light in her eyes illustrating several feelings in conflict with each other.
The design of the production is mostly in the splendid costumes by Lindsay Chamberlin, and then the second act opens the stage to the depth and color of Gerald Kean’s set for the hold of a ship bound for England, and the location where the fates of all of these characters come together.
R&G is not an easy play to pull off, and there are a few moments where tone and pacing veer a little off course, but Pennington rights the ship to bring the play to a satisfying close. Commonwealth Theatre Center continues to demonstrate their ability to push their students in the right direction, and deliver theatre worthy of any audience’s attention.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
November 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23 @ 7:30 PM
November 16 & 23 @ 2:00 PM
Nancy Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.