July 20, 2016

Stoppard’s Dazzling “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” Delivers Wit, Wordplay, Wisdom at Princeton Summer Theater

Theater rev 7-20-16

In pursuing its theme of “the Other,” Princeton Summer Theater (PST), last weekend opened its third production of the season, a funny, philosophical, verbally dazzling production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s 1966 masterpiece spin-off from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“‘The Other’ allows us to investigate new facets of once familiar stories and characters,” writes PST artistic director Ogemdi Ude in her program note. “We go to the theater to learn about new people, stories, and perspectives. We want to be transported from the familiarity of our day-to-day lives into the extraordinary atmosphere of a play or musical.”

The tone and theme of this past month’s Princeton Summer Theater offerings — starting with the eerie, timely Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, then Yasmina Reza’s scathing look at the human savagery beneath the civilized veneer in God of Carnage, and now, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Mr. Stoppard’s existentialist tragicomedy from the perspective of Hamlet’s two doomed, bewildered college friends who are summoned by King Claudius to spy on the Prince — are well suited to this season of troubling election politics; shocking, violent incidents breaking out weekly throughout the world; and rumblings of revolutions both domestic and international. Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in early August will be the final offering of the PST season.

In bringing to the Hamilton Murray stage four fascinating plays of the past 50 years — all richly thought-provoking, disturbing, and at the same time extremely funny, Princeton Summer Theater has clearly established itself as a first-rate, important cultural force in the community. These masterpieces by giants of late 20th/early 21st century theater prove eminently worthy of revival and reconsideration in the context of our current world. High production values, creative, intelligent staging, and thoroughly professional performances characterize this group and guarantee the rewards of an evening at PST.

The “new perspectives” and “extraordinary atmosphere” in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern arise from the hapless protagonists, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot and embodying the existentialist dilemma of our time, more typical of the 21st than the 16th century.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder what they are supposed to be doing, whether they have any control at all over their lives, especially since they are only minor characters buffeted by the mighty forces, human and inhuman, surrounding them. They remember being summoned. They suspect they have some purpose, some role to perform, but they spend the duration of the play wondering what that role and purpose might be, as they observe dramatic entrances and exits of the other more intensely engaged characters of Hamlet.

“We are little men,” says Guildenstern in rationalizing his passivity. “We don’t know the ins and outs of the matter … it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we’d be well advised to leave well alone.”

The play is full of dazzling wordplay, an ample supply of philosophical speculation about the most basic questions of existence, and a whirlwind of interesting observations on life and art and the thin line between the two.

Guildenstern, the more cerebral of the two, compares their final-act ocean voyage, accompanying Hamlet to England, to the human condition: “We’ve traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over: we move idly toward eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation,” he reflects. Many such reflective moments tease the philosophical mind into reflection, though a comedic tone prevails throughout most of the play.

The PST cast of 10 works with focus, energy, and purpose. Under the direction of Emma Watt, former PST artistic director, who has worked in various theaters across the country since her 2013 graduation from Princeton University. She is currently the programming associate at OBERON, the second stage of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater.

The production is polished and captivating, and the show moves smoothly and clearly towards its dark conclusion. Ms. Watt has judiciously pared down the script and streamlined the action, giving her performers multiple roles and limiting the running time to just two and a quarter hours.

Billy Cohen as the ingenuous Rosencrantz and Jake McCready as the skeptical, philosophical Guildenstern contrast and complement each other brilliantly. They know they have been sent for, and they lament that “words, words, words — they’re all we have to go on.” As they wait for their next orders from the king or for life to dictate their next move, they flip coins, contemplate the laws of probability, wonder what they are doing there and where they are going next.

Teaming with this pair to carry the action of the play is Olivia Nice as the Leading Player, who is bringing her troupe of performers to Elsinore. Dynamically histrionic, constantly engaging the title characters and the audience with her philosophical musings and her pleas for her four actors and their art, the Leading Player treads the thin line between theater and life, imagination and reality, reminding her audience onstage and off of the layers of plays within plays here. “We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people,” she warns.

The strong supporting cast includes Matthew Seely as a charismatic Hamlet, Caroline Hertz as Ophelia, Peter Giovine as Claudius, Ryan Gedrich as Gertrude, and Matt Volpe as Polonius. These hard-working, versatile performers double as the Leading Player’s beleaguered troupe of Tragedians — dramatic, funny, and eloquent in their silence. Megan Berry and Lydia Watt complete the cast, with all except for the three principals playing a variety of roles as courtiers, ambassadors, soldiers, attendants, and pirates.

Jeff Van Velsor’s simple unit set features a chess board in black and white on the stage floor and hanging, curtain-like fabric used to set the different scenes and stage the action. A cyclorama backdrop with expert lighting by Alex Mannix helps to establish the shifting moods and complement the action in this curious world of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the players.

Keating Helfrich has designed the costumes to help establish this setting and delineate the peculiar array of characters, providing a deft mix of traditional Elizabethan attire with modern touches.

Even if you think you’re not particularly interested in spending a summer evening engaged in speculations on existential questions or in contemplating conundrums of metatheatrics, or even in encountering clever Shakespearean spin-offs, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead will still reward you with an extremely funny evening in the company of two sympathetic characters, caught in a strange and engrossing human dilemma.

Ms. Watt describes in her director’s note how Stoppard’s characters persist in trying again and again “to find a more precise understanding of what it means to be human.” And she adds, “In a Stoppard play, there is always another idea. There is always another question.”

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” will run for two more weekends, July 21-24 and 28-31, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org/tickets for tickets.