Review: ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD at Court Theatre

The fast-paced meta-comedy has been extended through April 28.

By: Apr. 09, 2024
Review: ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD at Court Theatre
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Put the prefix "meta" before any noun or adjective, and your listener will inevitably roll their eyes in exhaustion. "Meta-fiction." "Meta-programming." "Meta-theatrical." These are terms thrown around by first-year graduate students who haven't yet learned how to have fun at dinner parties. Yet these concepts help us to understand better how cultural works and institutions shape our understanding of ourselves and others. For example, a work of meta-theatre is a dramatic work that is not only aware of its status as a dramatic work but also encourages audiences to think about and question what makes a play a play in the first place. One of the earliest works of the English playwright Tom Stoppard was THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND, a play about two theatre critics reviewing a murder mystery while being drawn into the investigation playing out in front of them.

But even this simplification comes across as dry navel-gazing. "Meta-theatrical" works need to be experienced--not explained--to be fully understood, and this experience can be as thrilling as it is thoughtful if the artists involved are experts in their craft. Thankfully, this expertise is on full display at the University of Chicago in a production of Stoppard's most famous work, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. With this, his final project as Court Theatre's artistic director, Charles Newell offers audiences a hilarious exploration of what makes us human as well as a stunning reminder of his keen dramaturgical instincts. The production has already been extended through April 28 due to critical acclaim and popular demand.

Stoppard's first commercial and critical success, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD follows two of the most easily forgettable characters from Shakespeare's HAMLET, the titular hero's childhood friends who hope to discern the cause of the young prince's madness. In Shakespeare's world, the two men predominantly serve as plot devices, spying on behalf of King Claudius before summarily being executed offstage in the tragedy's final moments. But Stoppard's play follows Rosencrantz (Nate Burger) and Guildenstern (Erik Hellman) "behind the scenes" as they question the nature of fate, the ability of art to imitate life, and how one creates meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. The clowns seem to know they are in a play within a play, especially once a troupe of actors enters to portray the other characters in HAMLET. But as the lines between one play and the other begin to blur, so do the boundaries between presentation and representation, destiny and free will, life and death.

This skillful reworking of dramatic conventions and traditions speaks to Stoppard's brilliance as a playwright. But his genius lies in making audiences question deep philosophical matters while doubling over with laughter, and Newell has expertly drawn out the comedy present on every page of the script. The play has traditionally been presented as a standard two-act running over two hours in most productions. But rather than have the momentum of the piece stall as patrons rush to the restroom, Newell has tightened the show to a brisk 90-minute one-act that speeds toward an unavoidable conclusion that is no less shocking and moving. He achieves this feat through skillful tinkering with the script (my favorite, though ultimately unnecessary, joke about "The Sabine Women" appears to have been cut) and driving his performers to deliver their lines at an urgent pace. The rapid-fire arrival of one punchline after another has a delightfully exhilarating effect that allows the play's few moments of silence to land with greater profundity.

That these emotional arcs land so effectively speaks to the talents of the comedic triple act at the heart of the production. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern frequently forget their names or whose name belongs to whom (leading to hysterical displays of acrobatics as the men trip over themselves to respond to the king and queen's commands), there is no question that Burger and Hellman have individually crafted two characterizations that are uniquely distinct yet emblematic of a universal human condition. Burger is the more optimistically playful of the two, smiling in wonder at the absurdities that surround him with an endearing childlike innocence. Or, rather, a childish belief that things will ultimately work out as they should. Towards the play's end, when Rosencrantz realizes what fate has in store for him and his friend, Burger's reluctant exit is the most heartbreaking, his once youthful crowing fading away into a whisper. Hellman's Guildenstern is the more practical and anxious of the pair, playing a kind of straight man to Burger's clown. Guildenstern gets most of the play's extended monologues on freedom and the failures of art to capture the brutality of life, and Hellman imbues these scenes with careful attention to affect and variety. Digressions that can too easily become confounding existential treatises instead feel perfectly natural and emotionally significant. Frankly, Hellman's Guildenstern is the most human I've ever seen onstage, setting a high standard for future productions across the city.

The lives and ultimate deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ultimately shaped (and potentially orchestrated) by a troupe of actors, the same troupe that arrives in Elsinore to perform a play intended to make Claudius confess to the murder of Hamlet's father. In Stoppard's version, the actors reenact brief scenes from the play under the direction of The Player (Lorenzo Rush Jr.), a performer who acts like a master of ceremonies who may or may not be a kind of god. Rush has an appropriately commanding presence, almost literally breaking through the fourth wall with a booming laugh that invites audiences into the joke before they realize that the joke is on them. Equally impressive, Rush and the remaining actors meld into a true ensemble, working with and through one another to tell a well-worn story through inventive stagecraft (though using pool noodles for swords in one scene feels disconnected from the design team's otherwise cohesive artistic vision). Each performer gets their moment to shine; for example, Blake Hamilton Currie makes for an especially crafty Hamlet. Yet these ensemble members never risk pulling focus or disrupting the world of the play. 

Newell and his cast have created an atmosphere of anarchic revelry that manages to make a fifty-year-old postmodern play feel fresh and timely, especially in an era when many of us feel that the trajectory of our lives and society may be well outside our control. Court Theatre's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD encourages us to embrace this uncertainty, to acknowledge the anxiety that we all share so that we can more easily laugh through whatever tears may come. Perhaps we all must face the Great Curtain Call at some time or another, but it helps to take the bow with friends and a smile on our faces.




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