It is not often that one sees Hamlet in vinyl pants. But this weekend, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead offers just that. Sharp, dry wit combines with overt sexuality to form a comedy that is simultaneously high- and low-brow in this unique interpretation of Tom Stoppard’s new classic, put on by GW’s Forbidden Planet Productions.
The play is a musing on what takes place in the lives of two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet outside of their brief scenes in the famous tragedy, which draws from existentialist influences such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Ironically, the minor characters in Stoppard’s play come to the forefront of this production, turning what is usually seen as a two-man play into an ensemble work.
Because the play is often considered too verbose for mainstream audiences, directors Julie Strachan and Dave Ravikoff sought to make it more visually appealing.
We knew the play was very wordy, said co-director Julie Strachan, and we wanted to add to it some physicality.
Their efforts result in a great deal of imaginative physical comedy never suggested within the script, but developed by the directors and cast during rehearsals.
Although the set remains minimalist, actors present on stage at any given time – even ones without speaking roles – seem to possess a well-developed sense of their character’s personality and continue to add to the scene with amusing background action. Most noteworthy of these minor characters is Alfred, played by Jamie Corbman, who, though only having a few lines, still manages a memorable performance.
The tragedians, a band of traveling actors that includes Alfred, are responsible for much of the play’s physical comedy. This aspect of the play is most apparent in the dumb show, a play without words that is told only through exaggerated expression and movement. Denmark’s royal court, the other group of minor characters, makes the excerpts from Shakespeare as laughable as the average dinner theatre. Their interpretation of Hamlet is far from traditional.
The Player (Jordana Schwartz), the leader of the tragedians and only character truly aware of what’s going on, plays her part with vigor. In skintight red snakeskin, her commanding air makes the part pimp, part director role also part dominatrix. One would not be at all surprised to see her break out a whip while giving her actors orders. During her t?te-?-t?tes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the pauses in her speech create as much tension as her words.
The two main characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Eric Ryles and Dougie Maloney, respectively, are the pillars of the play. Onstage from start to finish, their performances are remarkable. Maloney, a last-minute replacement, rises to the occasion, playing the part of Guildenstern with a knowing, sarcastic edge. The sharp back-and-forth dialogue between him and Ryles flows smoothly as he takes on a brotherly relationship with his buffoonish counterpart. As Rosencrantz, Ryles puts in an energetic performance. Saying as much through gesture as he does in his lines, Ryles makes his part become almost vaudevillian.
Act Three moves the play beyond plain comedy into more philosophical seas. Questions concerning man’s existence arise, and the play’s title gives away much of the ending. What alters this production from most is the inclusion of serious undertones in the first and second acts, acts that could otherwise have been made lighthearted. The somber finish does not come unexpectedly, rather it comes as a slow transition – order into disorder. As co-director David Ravikoff put it, It’s not so much about what’s on the paper, as it is the underlying themes.
What comes of the directors’ interpretations is a varied, multifaceted production. Physical comedy complements the play’s verbal wit, which certainly does not suffer from the inclusion of a more crass style of comedy. At any given time, a viewer has a choice of watching two characters argue over dramatic theory or watching two tragedians fake sex. Finally, there comes a play that offers something for everyone.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays this weekend at Lisner Downstage. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.