BWW Review: Laugh 'Til You Cry- ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD At Fells Point Corner Theatre
"Our affairs from England come too late; the ears are senseless that should give us hearing, to tell him his commandment is fulfill'd, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Where should we have our thanks?"
If you don't know who Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, or why anyone should care that they're dead, or think you might have once known, but maybe forgot, or the names seem familiar but you're not sure why...really, that's rather the point. Shakespeare himself seems to suddenly add them back in at the very end of HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, hurriedly concluding a storyline he'd introduced then abandoned or lost interest in, distractedly killing them off as casually as if he were George R. R. Martin.
Fells Point Corner Theatre is kinder and more careful with the two marginal players of that deadly tragedy than was their creator. The show is not taken particularly seriously, however; and the printed media attached to the production suggests a certain, erm, cheese factor, and some other liberties taken, which I am relieved to say does not cheapen or trivialize the performance.
Playing first in a Fringe Festival in 1966, R&G ARE DEAD has become a staple of existential comedy: it's very much Waiting For Godot, only funny. It's also Hamlet, but upside down. However, if you don't know either of these plays (or hate both), you may yet enjoy R&G, as it's written by Tom Stoppard, the guy who wrote SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. If you also hate that one, there's just no pleasing you, is there?
A damp audience makes its way into the tiny lobby of Fells Point Corner Theatre. It's Friday and tornadoes are forecast. It seems portentous. The box office person has a thrilling (or alarming, depending) offer: you might be chosen to become part of the show, if you so consent. The single set has a repeated theme that causes my companion to speculate whether that theme has specific significance or if it's just overdone. Everyone's a critic.
Pre-show music sounds classical, but also personally familiar: oh, it's that new genre, classic rock classical covers. Noice. Director Lance Bankerd, a high-level Baltimore theatre activist, creates an overall experience that is familiar, fresh, hilarious, pathetic and inevitable. Bankerd's top-notch, inclusive cast have the acting chops for HAMLET, the comic timing for NOISES OFF, the physicality for pantomime, the confidence for direct address, and the comfort of performing in denim. The opening moments, which both do and do not have the qualities of a dumbshow, allow a glimpse of characters who evidence themselves only after an extended two-character sequence. Ah, but the two characters!
Actors Logan Davidson and Matt Wetzel as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz- wait; reverse that- are blindingly brilliant: Davidson, childishly unquestioning with surprising moments of canniness is a perfect foil to Wetzel's sarcastic desperation. Both are nimble and fluid performers with expressiveness and likeability in full measure. Their movements are synchronous and smooth, seeming spontaneous, though some fancy moves with a series of coins indicate careful and prolonged practice sessions. Director Lance Bankerd successfully draws from Wetzel and Davidson references to Vladimir and Estragon, Nagg and Nell, Jerry and Peter, Oscar and Felix, Laurel and Hardy, and Pinky and The Brain. It's a theater nerd's game of Spot The Show.
Bethany Mayo performs as The Player, leader of the Tragedians. The Tragedians, though crucial to the plot in HAMLET, are but peripheral players. The focus of attention in R&G, the Tragedians drive most action so fully that one nearly can hear "...and Scene" as they exit. Mayo captivates our confounded protagonists and the audience with her mercurial motivations, cat-like physicalizations and unashamedly self-interested gold nuggets of dialogue.
In the role of Polonius, Thom Sinn delivers daffiness and teeters on the brink of incoherence; Rory Kennison plays hapless Alfred with an earnest resignation that belies his bio; Elizabeth Ung brings requisite tragic melodrama to Ophelia, a role that is all but silent in this iteration. Dominic Gladden, a graduate of Morgan State University, plays Hamlet with a clownish urgency as fitting to the role as it it rare.
Set Designer Gaya Sel's ingenious one-set stage allows multiple points of entrance, levels, seating, disappearances, symbolism and flexible inspecificity. It's significant and a little bit cute. Lighting is well-timed, sound cues are appropriate and unflawed, and the acoustics of the theater are such that actor whispers and mutterings are purposefully indistinct yet sufficiently audible. Costume Designers Deanna Fisher Brill and Maggie Flanigan outfit performers in semi-Shakespearian style, many pieces built of denim or chambray. Is it simply alliteration? Death- Doublet- Denim? The costuming does what it ought, with some unexpected quirkiness: it's interesting, illustrative, and doesn't impede or overshadow performance.
The restroom is clean, multi-stalled and reasonably sized, but a coat-room or rack is either unavailable or cunningly concealed. Intermission wine and snacks are available as cash-only purchases, and are permitted inside the theatre. Act II seems long enough to require fortification.
Ridiculous-sounding dialogue from supporting characters is, in fact, lifted from the script of HAMLET, a reminder that anything out of context is potentially absurd. Despite a self-generated familiarity with the text of the show, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD surprises and delights me throughout, as I experience for the first time a live production. It's refreshing, funny and universal, and well done in all regards. I recommend it.
Run Time: Two hours 40 minutes, including 15 minute intermission.
The lovely historic Fells Point area has enough to offer that you'd not go wrong calling Lyft to drop you near a restaurant a bit before 6 and fetch you again on Ann Street at 10:45. If you drive, be advised that parking in Fells Point approaches or equals Georgetown's levels of clustermuckery, so plan accordingly. In deference to this challenge, FPCT offers a parking pass for a nearby lot, well worth the $5 fee, which you can purchase either online along with your tickets or at the box office before the show. http://www.fpct.org/information/directions/
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD plays at Fells Point Corner Theatre weekends through Sunday, May 5, 2019
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Admission: $24 on Fridays/Saturdays, $19 on Sundays
Tickets are available at the box office on show days, or buy them online.
Photo, L to R: Logan Davidson and Matt Wetzel as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Photo by Trent Haines-Hopper, THsquared Photography
FPCT is located in the Upper Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore City at 251 S. Ann St. Baltimore, MD, 21231, two blocks east of Broadway, on South Ann St. between Pratt and Gough, towards the middle of the block.