Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Halberstam
“Heads up” for great production of Stoppard play.
Over 20 years have elapsed since Tom Stoppard strode across a stage at an annual Notre Dame University Sophomore Literary Festival. The students’ eyes focused, transfixed, on his left hand. An inflated balloon hung, suspended between his forth and fifth fingers. Just above, he placed a lit cigarette. As he walked and talked, the ash flickered, drooping ever closer to the balloon. We held our breaths and waited. What a lesson in building suspense!
As a master of suspense, Stoppard opens his brilliant tour de force, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with the two characters tossing a coin. It comes up heads. And heads again . . . and again . . . and again — over 90 times, although each time the law of probability posits a 50/50 chance.
Not only is there the continued and renewed suspense as to whether each toss will result in heads, there is also the gathering awareness that things are askew, that something is amiss, that life is topsy-turvy –- just as inverted as submerging the tale of a tragic hero (in this case Hamlet) under the story of two rather comic underlings.
In Shakespeare’s work, Hamlet’s boyhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are mere ciphers – interchangeable pawns. In fact, they are such ciphers that the 1948 Lawrence Olivier film omits them entirely — and the plot moves on quite easily without them. Why does Shakespeare need them? Perhaps as comic relief, perhaps as fillers to further plum the reasons for Hamlet’s behavior. A more provocative question might be why Stoppard chose them – and the result is as much philosophical as theatrical: to examine the ways in which we are all the heroes of our own lives. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are irrelevant to Hamlet, the tragic hero is equally irrelevant to them.
While it is not necessary to know Hamlet to enjoy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, it helps, because some of the best moments come at the intersections of the two plays – the scenes which include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original. They exemplify a quote from the play which – like so many thought- provoking lines — transcend the moment to apply to real life: “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else.”
The play is filled with quotable insights: We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
OK – there is no doubt that this is a superb work – winning the 1968 Tony and New York Drama Critics awards for Best Play — the question is how well Writer’s Theater presents it. The answer is that they more than live up to the material! What a cast. Under the fine direction of Michael Halberstam, actors Sean Fortunato and Timothy Edward Kane as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are masters of comic timing, effortlessly batting repartee at each other. Their forlorn faces wonderfully register bemused puzzlement. Bright eyed, charismatic Allen Gilmore brings humor and authority as he perfectly nails the role of the Player, and Joey Streakley captures a whimsical, effectively effeminate Alfred. Kudos to scenic designer Collette Pollard for an innovative “all’s the world’s a stage” set with a backdrop cleverly reflecting tiers of seats.
Nothing equals the excitement and immediacy of excellent live theater. Those who’ve you’ve seen the play, or the 1990 movie, will enjoy this highly skilled production. And for those who’ve never before seen it –what are you waiting for? It’s a real treat.
Reviewed by Beverly Friend
At Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, call 847-242-6000, or online at www.writerstheatre.org tickets $40-65 (directions for Tweet Seats — a day-of ticket discount program — can be found at Twitter.com/WritersTheatre), Tuesdays and Wednesdays 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays 8 pm, Saturdays 4 and 8 pm, Sundays 2 and 6 pm, Wednesdays 2 pm (Nov. 11 and 25 only). Running time is 2 hours and 15 minute with two 10-minute intermissions.
Editor’s Note: I agreee with Beverley’s review of Rosencrantz and Guildstern are Dead. I think Timothy Edward Kane (Guildenstern) and Sean Fortunato (Rosenscrantz) played off one another in a skilled comic and verbal banter that landed everyone of Stoppard’s witty dialogue. Add Allen Gilmore’s flamboyant turn as The Player and Writers’ Theatre has another master work for the theatre for your enjoyment. You’ll laugh and be stimulated by Stoppard’s amazing idea play. Words–words explode in this marvelous production.