"There will be time, there will be time...And time yet for a hundred indecisions/ And for a hundred visions and revisions," wrote T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The performance history of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has certainly borne out that point.
Performed three years ago in the same place, this quick-to-become-a-classic play is once again gracing the stage of the Leverett House Old Library. And it is a production that more than justifies its resurrection.
The play, a humorous and existential exposition on two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet, is a spurious and spontaneous lampoon of plays, playwrights and plots.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two courtiers for the King of Denmark, have a job to do. They will gladly do it, too, if they can only remember what it is and who sent for them. They talk, they joke, they spy on Hamlet. And they escort him to England where they will meet the end that Stoppard's title reserves for them.
Stoppard employs an almost cinematic technique of cutting between actual scenes from Hamlet and his own invention. His manner is witty without being jarring, and the cast of this production are careful that the transitions are as natural and unnatural as the playwright intended.
Casting Heather Gunn as Rosencrantz might at first seem an unusual choice, but Stoppard's playful revision, Gunn's outstanding performance and the sexual ambiguity of the characters in Shakespeare's own version ultimately all make the casting choice an effective one.
Stoppard was well aware that the actors in the Bard's time were all men, and he exploits the ambiguous sexuality in the work. Witness the "tragedian" boy-prostitute, Alfred (Jon Finks), who fumbles constantly with the folds of the skirt he repeatedly dons and sheds. And there's the added nuance of the the implications of the close relationship between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--the title characters cannot even tell themselves apart.
But Gunn is not really in need of a defense, philosophical or otherwise. She is a vibrant Rosencrantz, portraying the courtier with an appropriate mix of thickheadedness, naivete and confusion. Her facial expressions are extraordinarily expressive, and her command of mannerisms impressive.
As Guildenstern, A. Woody Hill is a credible companion to Gunn, although his performance lacks Gunn's force. But he seems a bit stiff and calculated at first, and stumbles occasionally, though some of that is intrinsic in the part.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has its moments of tedium--it is, after all, quite a long play--but the actors in the title roles sufficiently eliminate it with their quick repartee. Some pregnant pauses in the script are wisely omitted, and the supporting cast carries its weight.
Notably strong is Daniel O'Keefe as the player, who leads an insipid bunch of tragedians who meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the way to Elsinore. Throaty and amusing, O'Keefe's performance almost matches the quality of the protagonists, but his part is a lesser showcase. Still, he imbues the play's discourses on realism with a subtle touch of irony.
Glenn Kiser is also delightful as the aggrieved Prince of Denmark. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard imparts a bit more method into Hamlet's madness than can be found in Shakespeare's text, and Kiser adds a devilish glitter to the part.
The smaller characters also contribute to the production, if by nothing other than presence. The trumpeter Charla Griffy deserves special note for her outrageous costume, John Malone for his yuppily dressed (alas) Horatio and Gretchen Anderson for a glitzy Queen Gertrude. But Nestor Davidson's portrayal is weak. His Claudius, with the exception of some fluid moments in characterization, is disappointing.
Director T.J. Mitchell has done an excellent job in staging this production, elegantly integrating the stairways and contours of the Leverett space. However, a few touches do not work as well as they ought. People clamber in and out of the crates used in the stowaway scenes on the boat to England in such an easy manner that it is all too obvious they have a fake side facing the stage entrances. And the theatrical use of fake blood in the "deaths" toward the end of the play appears contrived.
Mitchell reworks the scenes drawn from Hamlet to give them an appropriately comedic twist. It's rare to praise a part overplayed, but Kevin Kain merits this designation for his hysterical performance as Polonius.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a play for the cogniscenti, and those who have not read Hamlet and Beckett and a slew of other playwrights might not appreciate the humor and good performances in this production. But those who enjoy spoofs on the canon will love this bizarre amalgamation that has returned, successfully, to Leverett House.