BWW Reviews: Cabal Productions' ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is Still Finding Its Feet

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In 1964, Tom Stoppard emerged from a mansion in Berlin with a one-act play called ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN MEET KING LEAR. Two years later, his reworked play, entitled ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, opened to acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival on August 24, 1966. A successful 1967 production at London's Old Vic made Tom Stoppard an overnight success. At almost 47-years-old, this play still excites theatergoers, actors, directors, and producers alike. The savvy exploration of the relevance of art, the commentary on insignificance, the absurdity, and the existentialism are just a handful of the hooks that allure people to the work and have garnered the show praise time and time again. In Houston, it feels that Cabal Productions' presentation of the play proudly exclaims Guildenstern's line "We're still finding out feet," without heeding The Player's warning, "I should concentrate on not losing your heads."

It is generally noted that the action of Tom Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD takes place in the wings of a production of William Shakespeare's HAMLET. This, in a sense, is true to the extent that the wings for HAMLET are reminiscent of the everywhere and nowhere wasteland of Samuel Becket's WAITING FOR GODOT. Essentially, Tom Stoppard creates a world that can be anywhere and nowhere. His two stars, a relatively insignificant duo from HAMLET, occupy the space created for them while waiting to enter the action of HAMLET. Being off stage for a majority of the show, they see only tiny bits and pieces of William Shakespeare's plot and misconstrue the tragedy as a melodramatic comedy all while playing games, mundanely prattling, killing time, waxing philosophical, and coming to understand their own identities. Then, in homage to works like WAITING FOR GODOT, the play ends with the cyclical notion that the entire sequence of events will happen again and again.

With the weighty and often dry script, as director, Leighza Walker solidly finds her feet by emphasizing the confusion of the titular characters. Also, she nicely stages the curtain call, to give the illusion that the act is now repeating as the audience is left with the image of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sitting and flipping coins, just as they were at the top of the show. But the legs her production stands on grow shaky very early in the production. HAMLET is now roughly 410 years old. According the central conceit of the show, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have idly been flipping coins for roughly 410 years; therefore, the first coin drop is met with disapproval, but is forgivable. Then, the repeated coin drops work to undermine Tom Stoppard's whole concept. Furthermore, the sense of spontaneity that the script remarks on several times feels absent. Under Leighza Walkers' direction many conversations are funny and elicit laughter but they also read as ploddingly rehearsed and suffer from slowed pacing and delivery. These lines should zip by and leave the audience in their wake, contemplating if we truly heard these absurdist zingers correctly and not thinking "Did he really just say that?" Lastly, Leighza Walker has nicely designed a set with fantastic levels for her cast to dynamically use, so it is a disappointment that through her blocking they often ignore the ramps and remain on the stage floor.

As Rosencrantz, Brian Heaton is deftly comical. He competently imbues the character with a clumsily obtuse manner, bringing forth chortles, chuckles, and smiles as he deftly deploys blank stares and glassy eyed facial expressions. When things get heated in the production, Brian Heaton's Rosencrantz becomes frenzied in his confusion. Traversing the character's arc, Brian Heaton often dons the mask of the audience's expectations, stating, "Consistency is all we ask for." He, like us, wants a clearly defined plot with a beginning, middle, and end to follow and chooses to be unaware of the subterfuge that attempts to derail the plot. All of this allows Brian Heaton to nicely arrive at Rosencrantz's apathetic acceptance that he must eventually die, adding appealing weight behind lines like "I wish I were dead...We don't question, we don't doubt, we just perform" and "If you can't be happy, then what's so good about survival?"

Cris Skelton's Guildenstern should exist on the opposite side of the same coin from Brian Heaton's Rosencrantz. In the text of the play, the character is notably astute and stoic for a majority of the work. Yet, on the stage, Cris Skelton builds a sharp Guildenstern that is wholly insular and just refuses to give Brian Heaton's Rosencrantz an inch of emotional connection to work off of. Effectively, the audience is presented with a Guildenstern that is philosophical but closed off and flat. The largest payoff for him in the show is when Rosencrantz says, "Now we've lost the tension," and he, as Guildenstern, states what the audience feels in his quip, "What tension?" He does attempt to broaden the character, but he relies on trite impersonations of Family Guy's Stewie Griffin's shifty eyes and Jack Black's brash, loud voice. In the end, Cris Skelton builds a character that is just hollow. While I don't like his approach, I also acknowledge that some may say, "That's the point."

The seemingly omniscient Player is brought to vibrant life by John Patterson. He first appears as a devious pimp, exploiting his troupe of actors as prostitutes and questioning if there is truly a difference between the professions. However, he comes into the role of guide for the titular duo and with a metaphorical wink of his eye, he lays the cards of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's fates bare for all to see. Additionally, Bob Galley, Eddie Edge, and Robert Meza amusingly play his band of Tragedians.

The principal cast of HAMLET is given over to minor roles in this work. As Hamlet, Daniel Bevan strides about with streaks of madness, contempt, and anger. He also excels at creating intimidating, crazed faces. Jonathan Gonzalez plays Claudius as a randy king that enjoys his power. Jane Stoub's Gertrude is amiable and attempts to maintain decorum. John Zipay's Polonius comes across as distraught and concerned for his daughter. Anna Schultz's Ophelia is silent and abused.

Lighting Design by David Gipson is relatively simple, keeping the lighting as yellowed hues for a large portion of the performance. His best cues are the reds for the end of Act II and the blues that open Act III. Personally, I would have enjoyed more visual absurdity in the design, but what is present is serviceable.

I won't lie, a high school English teacher left me with a really bad taste in my mouth for this show. I expected to deplore it, but I found I didn't. Leighza Walker's direction and these performances, despite the faults addressed, really exposed me to the heart of the show. I don't agree with every choice made on the stage, but this presentation of ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD showed me that this is not a show I should write off. It still has some important things to say that we need to hear.

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including two intermissions.

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD plays Obsidian Art Space at 3522 White Oak Drive, Houston, 77007 now through Saturday, August 10. Performances are Monday 8/5, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm. For tickets and more information, please visit or call (832) 506-0551.

All photos courtesy of Leighza Walker.

Brian Heaton as Rosencrantz & Cris Skelton as Guildenstern.

Robert Meza as Alfred & Cris Skelton as Guildenstern.

Brian Heaton as Rosencrantz & Cris Skelton as Guildenstern.

John Patterson as Player.

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From This Author David Clarke