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THEATER REVIEW Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Jonathan Abarbanel
2009-10-14

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Playwright: Tom Stoppard. At: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor, Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000; writerstheatre.org; $40-$65. Runs through: Dec. 6

I was 20 and this play was new when I saw the original London production and was astonished by its audacious comedy, intelligence and literary parody, turning minor characters from Hamlet—the Player King and the title pair—into the starring roles. In his first great success, author Tom Stoppard was brazen enough to tell you precisely what he was about: "We do onstage what others do off," the Player King explained, "which is a kind of integrity if you consider that every exit is an entrance somewhere else."

That was four decades ago, and the wit and luster of R&G Are Dead hasn't diminished one iota, nor has the passionate intelligence—political, scientific, cultural and metaphysical—of its author, now Sir Tom Stoppard. Seeing this play after many years is like returning to an old friend, and Writers' Theatre makes the reunion absolutely worthwhile.

But 40 years on, it's not the intelligence and literary parody that impress me; it's Stoppard's debt to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde that seems so clear. The play is an absurdist work written at the height of European absurdism with Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Havel and others at the height of their writing powers. Like Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot or Pinter's killers in The Dumb Waiter, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in a random and often cruel universe controlled by forces beyond their understanding, which renders their lives meaningless. Guildenstern continually tries to make scientific sense of it all while the dimmer Rosencrantz drifts with the current. Meantime the literary wit, elegant phrases and comedy of manners are descendents of Oscar Wilde. "We're tied to a language that makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style," Guildenstern observes in a pure-Wilde moment.

As handsomely staged by Michael Halberstam, a veteran cast of oft-proven mettle sails through Stoppard's and Shakespeare's dense text providing entertainment, intellectual stimulation and colorful tableaux. "The best actors in the world" ( as Polonius says ) are lead by Sean Fortunato as Rosencrantz channeling Stan Laurel, Timothy Edward Kane as the hyper-rational Guildenstern and sonorous-voiced Allen Gilmore as the Player King, an archetypal survivor ( as R&G themselves are not ) . They are on the dry side—more intellectually amusing than charming—but nonetheless appealing. The larger passions are left to momentary flashes from the secondary characters.

The principals and supporting players are dressed in Rachel Anne Healy's rich and wittily eccentric costumes, paraded across Collette Pollard's theater-within-a-theater scenic design. Indeed, Halberstam's grandest conceit is establishing R&G Are Dead as a play-within-a-play, obvious to all except R&G themselves who remain befuddled even at the curtain call. If we are intrigued without ever quite being enlightened about life, well, that's the touch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in each of us.


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