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Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown, left)
and Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon).

An epically cluttered two-story set is currently greeting audience members at the Folger Shakespeare Library for a new, exciting production of Tom Stoppard's 1966 landmark play ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. On this elaborate set, Paige Hathaway has scattered around fifty copies of HAMLET, a plethora of skulls, a barrel of shovels, chairs, a clock and an upright piano among other assorted items that set the play firmly within the set of another play. A few dozen lampshades hung upside down bring a warm, natural light, contrasting with Thom Weaver's dramatic and colorful stage lighting. Far before the first lines are spoken director Aaron Posner, known for his unique reinventions of classics, and his creative team have created a new home for Stoppard's absurd spin on Shakespeare, and while doing so have breathed life into a classic nearing its 50th anniversary.

Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown, left)
and Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon)
contemplate their fates in Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead.

In ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN, Stoppard takes two incidental characters from HAMLET and casts them as the heroes in this existential dive into Shakespeare's play, theater, life and death. Having been called to the royal court of Denmark to figure out what's up with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern set off an a long, confusing trip to the eventual realization of their inevitable deaths, (as announced in the line from Act V, Scene 2 of HAMLET that gives Stoppard's play its title), while taking plenty of tangents to discuss philosophy and probability, play verbal tennis, encounter a troop of desperate actors and even run into pirates--because let's face it, pirates can happen to anyone. Stepping into the two iconic roles are Adam Wesley Brown and Romell Witherspoon. Both are newcomers to both the Folger and DC, and both bring an absolutely virtuosic talent to the stage. Combining impressive verbal dexterity with their own individually modern voices, Brown and Witherspoon are an instantly loveable pair with impeccable comic timing. Brown's inquisitive and sharp witted Guildenstern plays perfectly against Witherspoon's slower, more deliberate Rosencrantz, who speaks volumes in his facial expressions. Posner has created plenty of touching moments between the two, adding to the more personal feel of this production of a play that is often seen as intellectual and cold.

The Player (Ian Merrill Peakes, center left)
explains the limitless possibilities to Guildenstern
(Adam Wesley Brown). Also pictured, left to right: Luis Alberto
Gonzalez, Maggie Donnelly, Stephen Russell Murray, Rachel Zampelli.

Folger regular Ian Merrill Peakes is a loud, flamboyant standout as The Player. Armed with a comically oversized codpiece and stage presence to match, Peakes never fails to deliver the laughs, shrieks, gasps and raucous applause. He is ably supported by Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Stephen Russell Murray, Jacob Yeh, Rachel Zampelli and Maggie Donnelly, (who also plays the onstage piano), as the singing, cross-dressing, pantomiming, dancing, and pretend-dying Tragedians. Biko Eisen-Martin, Andy Prosky, Kimberly Schraf, Brynn Tucker and Craig Wallace all bring their Shakespeare A-game as characters from HAMLET.

Considering Posner's known talent for reimagining classic works, (his Chekov adaptations STUPID F**KING BIRD and LIFE SUCKS played at Woolly Mammoth and Theater J respectively earlier this season), it seems only fitting for him to direct one of the great modern takes on Shakespeare; Posner's even followig in Stoppard's footsteps with an update of MERCHANT OF VENICE set in DC titled DISTRICT MERCHANTS that is premiering at the Folger next season. With this production, Posner is clearly in his comfort zone, milking every joke, finding new beats in the material and different ways to bring the audience into the action. From first to last moments Posner's direction is disruptive, thought out and as entertaining as it is reflective.

Claudius (Craig Wallace, center) directs Rosencrantz
(Romell Witherspoon, right) and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown)
to glean what is afflicting Hamlet. Kimberly Schraf pictured in background.

Adding another dimension to the play is Eric Shimelonis' music and sound design, providing two separate sounds for the production: an acoustic and off the cuff one for the world of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN, the other recorded and over-the-top for the world of HAMLET. Across the board, the creative team has designed two shows, and the transitions between them are always clear and precise. Even the handsome costumes by Helen Q. Huang reflect the different worlds, with an incredibly pleasing and surprising mix of Shakespearean silhouettes and modern touches like zippers and pockets. All together, the effect is a beautiful, smart and complicated night of theater in which every department, from cast to crew to staff, has put its best foot forward to end off the season on a high note.

Runtime is approximately two and a half hours with one intermission.

Photos by Teresa Wood and Jeff Malet.

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD plays at Folger Theatre through June 21, 2015. Tickets are $35-$75. Lower-priced discounts for students, seniors, military, educators, and groups of ten or more are available and may be purchased at the Folger Theatre Box Office at (202) 544-7077 or online at

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