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THEATRICALLY AND intellectually, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of the last decade's most awesome dramatic conceptions. An ingenious retelling of Hamlet from the point of view of that tragedy's two incidental victims, this piece of absurd theater involves difficult staging, acute psychological insight, and beautiful language which demands highly subtle direction and acting.
For the most part, Arthur Lasky and the cast of the current Loeb Ex production are more than equal to the task. Under Lasky's thoughtful direction, the play has been almost more choreographed than merely staged. His eye for movement and careful attention to the interpretation of minor characters help create precisely that tension between absurd comedy and human tragedy at which Stoppard aims.
The timing and emotional control of the lead characters is excellent. Pope Brock plays an appropriately ingenuous, high-strung and thoroughly bewildered Rosencrantz to Bernie Holmberg's pompous, melodramatic, and equally bewildered Guildenstern. The most intense monologue of the play and much of its dramatic focus belong to the Head Player of the troupe performing at Elsinore, a part skillfully played by Chris Josephs. He is the most noble, though he appears the most decadent, of the major characters. The times being "wicked," he supports himself with obscene tableaux, though he is the only figure who understands and carries on in a world of unpredictable meaning.
Stoppard's themes are expressed in a Shakespearean motif: the constant juxtaposition of acting and living. Actors, directed by dramatists, whose actions are made meaningful by the approval of audiences, enjoy advantages that people in an indeterminate world do not share. While love and providence provide meaning for the characters of Shakespeare, Stoppard's people have no external frame of reference. Unable to see that they themselves create the significance of their actions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are caught in a world where their identities and their living and dying are equally arbitrary.
Joseph's troupe is also superb, always mirroring the unreality with which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern view the "real" world. Lauren Sunstein, as the sniffling and oft-abused Alfred, plays her small part exceptionally well, as do the other Players, whose near-wordless roles require remarkable agility and continually forceful expression.
OTHER MINOR characters were not as satisfactory, mostly because their roles were not so thoroughly conceived. Eloise Watt, as Gertrude, adds a nice touch with her lustful perusals of Rosencrantz. However, she and her Claudius, played by Bill Strong, are too sweet to be scheming and too sincere to be ridiculous. Tony Cesare's Polonius is silly, rather than senile; his character lacks what the genuine figure of Polonius invariably exhibits, an exaggerated sense of his worth and of the importance of his actions. Fletcher Word plays Hamlet who seems neither intense nor melancholy. Liz Hollister, however, portrays Ophelia effectively both in her Shakespearean and comi-tragic contexts; she performs her lines, taken directly from Hamlet, with suitable emotion, but dumbly submits to her being used as a prop in the play staged by Claudius and Polonius.
The other shortcoming of the production is its editing of the text. Stoppard's text ends on Horatio's speech from Hamlet, in which his remarks on "casual slaughters" echo exactly Rosencrantz's desperate confusion. The Loeb production ends with the speeches of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which do not succeed as well in tying the work together and in reemphasizing the strange kinship of Shakespeare's and Stoppard's worlds.
At one point, the Head Player explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style." The Loeb Ex production has both energy and great style, creating a world of small, struggling men caught, as Stoppard shows us, facing the obscurity of their own lives.
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