Yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead – or at least they will be by the end of “Hamlet,” from whence British playwright Tom Stoppard borrowed them. But in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor, Shakespeare’s minor characters are alive and well and the stars of their own three-act stage show. Or are they – dead or alive, that is?
That’s the question many at the opening night performance were asking one another – and whether right or wrong, that’s the type of debate that makes Stoppard’s absurdist tragicomedy such an intriguing night at the theater.
The two childhood friends of the young Prince find themselves plucked from familiar surroundings and thrust into the spotlight – confused and unsure of what is unfolding around them. As “Hamlet” swirls in the background – Stoppard inserts a half-dozen or so snippets from the source material into his work – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stumble through their assigned roles while offering an insightful and thought-provoking discourse on such weighty matters as life, death, chance and predestination.
But since this IS an absurdist work, little is clear-cut or makes immediate sense – which, I assume, is why the audience thinned slightly after each of two intermissions. (Absurdist plays, despite their excellence, often have that effect.)
Director John Seibert understands the script and its concept quite well, however – and he proves it with a thoroughly engaging production that’s filled with clever bits, delightful banter, impeccable timing and pensive introspection.
Plus, he set the stage for top-notch performances by Loren Bass (Rosencrantz) and Malcolm Tulip (Guildenstern), both of whom excel at sorting out the sometimes-confusing and clownish characters handed them by the playwright.
Fine support is also given by Aaron Moore, who plays the larger-than-life leader of the Tragedians, a traveling troupe of actors whose third-act shenanigans help Rosencrantz and Guildenstern grasp the reality (or lack thereof) of their current situation. (His death scene is perfect.) And Kevin Young wanders the stage in rare form as the depressed young Hamlet.
One of Seibert’s casting decisions may have purists gasping for air, however. Although hiring women as members of the Tragedians flies in the face of theater history, it makes all the more absurd the use of a male actor in the “female” role – and the look on Brett Radke’s face when he must once again don the wig and dress is priceless!
Music choices by sound designer Will Myers brought a smile to my face several times on opening night, and light design by Daniel C. Walker complements the action quite well.
However, Monika Essen’s set will generate much discussion throughout the run of the show. I still haven’t figured out what the set represents or where the story takes place – yet that lack of clarity doesn’t bother me in the least. After all, it makes total sense within the confines of a play that often makes little sense – at least at first.
‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., through Feb. 22. Tickets: $15-$41. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org