Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead juxtaposes scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet with philosophical pronouncements like the one quoted above. That the play’s dual elements are in perfect harmony throughout the Mimes and Mummers’ production is a credit to the great talent onstage and backstage.
The play retells Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy from the perspective of two minor characters, childhood friends of the prince of Denmark who are now betraying him. This version features many events familiar from high school English class, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to determine what ails Hamlet, and then sail with him to England, where events do not go as planned.
These scenes, however, take a backseat to the title characters’ debates about God and religion, among other weighty topics. Stoppard balances these musings on the nature of existence with an absurd, meta-theatrical tone. This is largely thanks to a troupe of actors, led by the Player, whose productions (plays within the play) foreshadow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fates.
These are deep concepts, and to his credit director Rory Pelsue makes it easy for the audience to get on the production’s level- literally. He has staged the work in reverse- the audience is seated on stage, and the actors use not only the lower half of the stage but also Collins Auditorium itself as a performance space. This change in perspective gives the audience a new vantage point on the play- Pelsue and set designer Elle Crane are to be credited for this innovation.
The other technical aspects of the play are top notch as well. Sarah Hill’s costumes blend classic Shakespeare with modern tastes- the title characters wear berets and ruffled shirts, in the Shakespearean style, but they also wear jeans. This dichotomy, while at first jarring, is less noticeable as the audience is sucked into the play.
Brendan Polke’s lighting design uses both brightness and darkness to its advantage(crucial for a tragicomedy), while Chris Pedro’s sound, particularly a propulsive drumbeat used in act two, is jarring in all the right places.
AJ Golio and Michael Brown have perfect chemistry as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. From the first scene, when the two flip coins and discuss the nature of probability, it seems as if these two have been friends for years. They also put the perfect spin on Stoppard’s dialogue, in both long speeches and short exchanges.
Amy Palen is a force of nature as the Player- her many monologues on the philosophy of acting are both intellectual and uproarious thanks to her delivery. Her band of tragedians is also a hoot, particularly Matt Mayer, who as the gender-bending, scantily clad Alfred is the source of many of the show’s biggest laughs.
Shakespeare’s main characters take a backseat in this play, but our few moments with them are revealing. Collin Wright gives Hamlet a suitably cocky edge, which is different from how he is classically portrayed but makes sense given his actions here. Jake Benoit also puts an original spin on Polonius- he is depicted as a comic nebbish, which is hilarious in its irony.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was an unorthodox choice for the Mimes, but it proved to be a good one, as the large, laughing crowd at Thursday night’s performance can attest(get there early if you go this weekend.) It’s unusual to get intellectual stimulation through laughter, but that’s just what this show provides.