"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern": a Miserable Death

SHOW INFORMATION: Through March 9; Tues – Sat at 8PM; Sat and Sun at 2PM, Sun at 7:30PM.  Tickets: $10 - $60.  www.centerstage.org or 410-332-0033. 

◊ 1/2 out of five. 2 hours 45 minutes, including 2 intermissions.  One scene of stylized, though graphic, sexuality.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which opened last night at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore, has set the new standard for bad theatre.  (That was easier to say than I thought it would be.)  Directed with a schizophrenic hand by Irene Lewis, this Tom Stoppard classic is really starting to show its age (not so avant garde anymore), and a remarkable lack of ability on the part of most involved.  Stoppard is clearly in love with his gift for language even at this young stage in his career – it opened in 1967.  R & G, at least as staged here, retains that hippie-esque, drug hazed vibe where it was cool, man, cool, to turn convention on its ear and throw everything but the kitchen sink into it.  The idea – that we are seeing Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters – is an interesting one, but the execution of the idea, not so much.  I enjoy theatre that makes you work a little, makes you think and engage in what you are seeing.  Sometimes that leads to a euphoric reaction, other times disappointment.  But this production leaves me still, some 15 hours later, annoyed.  I hate being annoyed, especially for the two hour, forty-five minutes that this thing runs.   

Much has been written in the local press about the "intentional casting" of two black men as Rosencrantz (Michael Jean Dozier) and Guildenstern (Howard W. Overshown), allegedly to point up the fact that these "nothing" characters are being played by men of color, where they normally wouldn't be.  Fair enough, but where's the hullabaloo surrounding the casting of women as Ophelia and Gertrude?  Women would not have played those roles, either.  The race of these actors is pointless – it simply does not matter, especially in the context of Hamlet, where that is not an issue… Othello, maybe, but not Hamlet.  Who cares?  So let's focus on the fact that they represent half of the four things that are good about this show.  Mr. Dozier and Mr. Overshown do nice work, carefully doling out their lines with commitment.  They can command a stage, and execute the unnecessarily complex blocking with grace and dignity. 

This overly earnest, smugly odd-on-purpose undertaking is handled as well as possible by the rest of the cast, but only two really stand out.  The rest are almost like background music – the "cast" of Hamlet (Ralph Cosham, Reese Madigan, Jake Riggs, Kristen Sieh, Chandler Vinton and Mark Elliot Wilson) barely registers as more than place holders, so we know how much longer we must wait until our title characters will die.  (Man, is Hamlet long…)  Not one of these actors makes an impression that lasts beyond an "oh, yeah, we are waiting out the story of Hamlet."  Registering as noisier Muzac, is the band of Tragedians, another set of characters in Hamlet, that like, R & G, come into the play, make their point and go.  So naturally, we see much more of them (Joe Brady, Karen Hansen, Andy Paterson, Rich Potter) as they await their stage time, too.  These odd ball clowns (literally, here) chew the scenery like it is the Last Supper, and provide only glimpses of what could be – potential wasted is another annoyance.  I don't blame them entirely, director Lewis has no idea how to stage slapstick or any variety of physical comedy, and subtlety is not in Ms. Lewis' vocabulary either, it seems. 

There are two actors, though, who represent the other half of the good things in R & G are Dead: bit player Daniel Kennedy as Alfred, a tragedian, and CENTERSTAGE regular Lawrence O'Dwyer as The Player.  Mr. Kennedy's character is the youngest of the troupe, and is thus saddled with the "girl roles" and crappy assignments, including one uncomfortably long sequence that has him on the receiving end of about 15 sexual positions.  And he gets to wear among other things, an adult onesie and a Speedo, neither flattering to any man, but he manages to make his time onstage thoroughly engaging and he connects with the audience in a way that no other actor in it does.  Mr. O'Dwyer, really is making a star turn here.  His delivery and presence are impeccable, and he seems to be the only one 100% sure of what the play is saying.  That he does so in a bizarre costume, which includes among other things a body stocking painted so that he looks to be tattooed from shoulder to foot, is a credit to this actor. He is funny, charming and ultimately unnerving as he talks about death as an inevitably that is undisputable. 

Technically, the show is all over the place, matching, though clearly not on purpose, the mess that is the direction.  Paul Steinberg's set is mostly unattractive, including a bizarre set where Hamlet is actually being performed, and a series of giant harlequins that look like space ships.  I will give him this: the opening set – a black stage with a huge light post – suggests the play's connection to Waiting for Godot, and later three doors suggest a farce, which this certainly could be, but isn't.  Finally, I have to say his floors – all three of them - are inspired, and the only thing worth looking at.  Candice Donnelly's costumes are uniformly ugly, and smugly odd-on-purpose (is this a theme?).  Most unfortunate are the outfits of our title heroes, which only serve to point out the flaws in whatever concept the team was going for – one in a turn of last century plaid suit the other in a modern jacket and jeans.  Then, of course, there is the costume for Gertrude, which garnered a few giggles – a purple satin dress with a Norma Desmond turban – making the poor actress wearing it look like a bad drag queen or a Carol Burnett spoof.  Rui Rita's lighting is colorful. 

Throughout the play, Stoppard has R & G behaving much like Abbott and Costello, including an obnoxiously long game of heads or tales and another game of questions and answers, where you lose if you answer a question with a statement rather than another question – believe me, by the second round it is old.  And so I'll end my review with an observation and a bit of that game.  Observation: by the final curtain, half the audience was gone, including several of my colleagues (side question: how many will admit in print that they didn't watch the whole thing ?).  Question:  Why did James Howard stay until the final curtain?  Answer: So you can avoid it altogether.  Oops.  A statement.  I lose.   

PHOTOS: Courtesy of CENTERSTAGE, by Richard Anderson.  TOP to BOTTOM: Michael Jean Dozier and Howard W. Overshown as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; The Tragedians; The Tragedians – Daniel Kennedy, center in dress; Lawrence O'Dwyer as The Player; Michael Jean Dozier and Howard W. Overshown as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.


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