Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
nytheatre.com review by Mary Beth Smith
July 13, 2011
If you are going to see one show this summer at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, make the time to see Panicked Productions performance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard’s play has become an iconic piece of drama, restructuring how actors and directors deal with the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in productions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Once considered to be small characters, today’s actors jump at the chance to play these two clowns with as much wit and innocence as one can muster. There are jokes that Stoppard makes that have now made it into the performance history of Hamlet, namely confusing the two names, adding a dimension to a 400-year-old play that probably was not anticipated by the original playwright.
Director Glenn De Kler takes Stoppard’s unconventional Hamlet story to another level by casting only women in a very male-dominant play. While we have grown accustomed to gender bending and gender-specific casting, it is always with a little hesitancy that we pursue this avenue. What if the gender identities are so intrinsically a part of the play that to change it will ruin it? Most of the time, as artists we change it anyway, we break the mold, we strive to be on the edge. After all great success can only come when you risk great failure. After seeing De Kler’s all female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, however, one wonders if it was ever meant to be played any differently. What his production does incredibly well is to steer clear of “playing the gender,” allowing the characters to achieve a gender-neutral quality. As audience members we do not associate any characters with being male or female, simply as characters, which a testament to the success of this production.
While De Kler is responsible for the overall conceit of the show, much praise must be given to the extraordinary actors. The title characters played by Allison Hirschlag and Jessica Delbridge play off of one another as if they have been together for years, finishing each other’s sentences, switching roles, comforting and confronting one another. They are, essentially, two sides of the same coin. Hirschlag brings a childlike quality to Rosencrantz through her desire to play games with Guildenstern, her confusion at the situation, constantly seeking answers, and her unwavering ability to trust Guildenstern. Conversely Delbridge counters Hirschlag by being the logical, level-headed leader of the two, acting as an older sibling in her best moments, and as a best friend in their final moments. What makes this pair magical is their overall sense of play throughout; the audience has a good time, because they are clearly having a blast on stage. This sense of fun works wonderfully to the production’s advantage as the audience is truly mournful when Hamlet switches the letters that call for their deaths. Though from the title we know their eventual fate we find ourselves hoping that somehow they can escape and live freely, but that would do an injustice to the source material and Hamlet’s character.
And who can forget the tragedians themselves, led by The Player, Whitney Kimball Long. Long leads this band of misfit actors as a sort of circus ring leader (with the help of a trusty cape), manipulating words and situations to the benefit of her troupe and always, always being an actor first. As she says in the second half of the play “I am always on.” She acts as the narrator to the bigger story, filling in gaps for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and reminding us that we are, after all, watching a play. Often actors playing actors can feel campy, or worse, extremely self-indulgent, Kimball and her troupe make us all want to join the theater and run away with them.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Midtown International Theatre Festival is one of the best and most poignant performances I have had the pleasure of experiencing in indie theater. Panicked Productions brings to life an old story and a modern classic with as much heart as tragedy and reminds us all that there is always another dimension to the story.