“We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!”
Ah, there are so many enjoyable lines in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the 1966 play that made British playwright Tom Stoppard’s name. Director Joseph Ziegler’s pleasurable Soulpepper production allows an opportunity to relish each one anew, even if it never entirely convinces that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its repartee.
R&G: RIP, as it is known in theatre shorthand, retells Hamlet from the perspective of the two friends who Claudius summons to spy on him, and who later end up as off-stage casualties.
Perhaps the success and popularity of Stoppard’s play is most measurable in how few productions of Shakespeare’s original these days can resist portraying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the way they are here – as a pair of unlucky clowns, mixed up and constantly being mixed up; the couple of good eggs that you can’t make a Hamlet without breaking.
Ted Dykstra is Rosencrantz here, while Jordan Pettle is Guildenstern, though that information is really only confirmable in the program. While there is a full baker’s dozen of actors in Ziegler’s production, most of the play sees these two alone on stage together, trying to figure out exactly why there are there.
As influenced as the play is by Hamlet, it is even more so by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The Irish sense of poetry and scatology, however, is here replaced with a distinctly British display of smarts that is showy, if ultimately hollow. (And that’s kind of the point.)
Dykstra, his boyish face peering out from under a scraggly curtain of blond curls, is perfect as Rosencrantz, the more dim-witted and bigger-hearted of the two (or so it seems at first). He is funny as all get out, but what really impresses is his clear journey through the nebulousness of the play – anxiety mounting as he makes his way through the five stages of grief.
Pettle doesn’t carve as clear a path for the intellectualizing Guildenstern. He’s fine, but comes across as more ponderous than philosophical. I couldn’t help but feel Pettle was miscast, a sharper, stronger sort of energy being needed to balance the play. His Guildenstern is so interior that he mostly misses emotionally connecting with his partner in purgatory – and for this play to really be running on all cylinders, it needs to be a bromance.
The pair’s main interlocutor is the Player, played by Kenneth Welsh with brio. His troupe of misfit travelling actors – particularly Paolo Santalucia and Oliver Dennis – are delightful.
Gregory Prest teases us with a taste of a mischievous and unhinged Hamlet that would surely be tremendous, while Nancy Palk, playing Gertrude, reminds us of the fine Gertrude she played years ago and could easily pick up again. Is it too soon for Soulpepper to do Hamlet again?
Staged in the round, Ziegler’s production convincingly conjures existential dread. If it lacks energy in the second act, so does Stoppard’s play. Luckily there’s a third, a solid one – and all’s well that ends well.