‘Guildenstern’ Enlivens Stoppard’s Text

“Death is ... not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat,” Guildenstern (Eli E. Kahn ’13) asserts after his companion asks if death could be a boat. It is a seemingly foolish question, but in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist and existentialist tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the titular pair is searching for any explanation for their peculiar state of limbo. The naïve Rosencrantz (Benjamin A. Silva ’14) replies, “I’ve frequently not been on boats.” This exchange is emblematic of the complex tonality of Stoppard’s text, which struggles with the subject of morality in one moment and delves into humorous wordplay in the next. Though Lenora C. Murphy ’12’s production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” grapples successfully with the challenges of the text, it is undermined by a faltering attempt to infuse the play with a modern aesthetic. Luckily, the production overcomes this weakness due to the winning dynamic between Silva and Kahn.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which ran in the Loeb Experimental Theater from October 13 to 15, concerns two minor characters from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the titular pair who are never seen apart. The play inverts Shakespeare’s original, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the lead characters and Hamlet in a minor role. The duo has been summoned to the King’s palace for an unknown purpose and while waiting, they come across a traveling group of players who join them in their journey. Original scenes from “Hamlet” are interwoven with dialogue between the pair as they attempt to discern not only what’s happening around them but also the meaning of life at large. As the play progresses, their fate becomes more apparent until it is undeniable.

Guildenstern reads a letter, at first with a bored tone, expecting Hamlet’s name until he reaches the fatal change, sentencing himself and Rosencrantz to death instead of the prince. Before the impact is registered, The Player (Caroline R. Giuliani ’11) blares at the Tragedians to leave, shouting, “They’ve gone—it’s all over!” The delivery of the statement, intended to underscore the fate of the titular pair, disrupts an essential moment rather than illuminating it and serves as a synecdoche of the production’s most salient flaw. In an attempt to rejuvenate the script with unsubtle modern touches, Murphy allows style to distract from the play’s substance.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is typically compared to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” for multiple reasons, but one in particular presents a stumbling block for directors: the potential for tedium as the duos await their fates. However, in adroit hands, the waiting engenders dramatic tension instead. The impulse to enliven the script with a hipster aesthetic, a nonsensical array of props, and a merry group of players that are more distracting than compelling is an understandable reaction to the text’s potential pitfalls, but the effort is misguided.

The players are clothed in plaid shirts, black skinny jeans, and Converse. When they portray one of the major characters from “Hamlet,” they wear ludicrous, period costumes over their clothes, as though they are children playing dress up. However, this costume choice feels more scattered than original, as if the players are drawn from multiple productions of “Hamlet.” Similar problems beset the stage design: eclectic props are strewn across the set, including a shopping cart filled with mannequin parts and streamers. Disembodied mannequin parts would be disturbing if they were actually utilized in the production. Instead, they are merely one of a bizarre and apparently meaningless array of props.

Silva and Kahn’s strengths are manifested in their ability to negotiate the fluidity of identity within the play and still portray individualized characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern frequently call each other by the wrong name or forget their own, but remain grounded in their own characters. Silva’s Rosencrantz is filled with brisk energy and manages to be childish but not cloying. He runs back and forth across the length of the stage, demonstrating a sense of claustrophobia more deftly than the set design. Silva functions nimbly in Stoppard’s self-conscious theatricality, able to switch quickly from acknowledging the audience to bemoaning the pair’s isolation. Kahn shines as the more intellectual of the pair. He can articulate the intricate hypotheticals and wordplay of Stoppard’s text with an admirable fluency. However, he is more than a scholar; Kahn has the depth to comfort a fearful Rosencrantz with an embrace in one moment and, with measured menace in his tone, threaten Giuliani’s flippant Player in the next.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s identities are interchangeable not due to similarity in character but due to seamless interaction, a credit to both actors and director. Silva and Kahn act in concert; their dialogue is a steady rapport. Their chemistry is apparent in their gestures—frequent embraces, even spooning in their sleep—and their facial expressions. To say that their intimacy is a gay take on the characters would be an oversimplification. Instead, Kahn’s Guildenstern and Silva’s Rosencrantz appear to rely on each other. Though the crucial sense of foreboding arrives too late and too rarely due to the distraction of the players, when the tone makes its essential shift, the actions of Kahn and Silva towards each other engender a genuine response.

—Staff writer Hayley C. Cuccinello can be reached at hcuccinello@college.harvard.edu.

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