All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — Wilma Theater

untitled (106)Squirming, gyrating, turning slowly at odd angles, and other unnecessary, unenhancing, unedifying bursts of the-uh-tuh aside, Blanka Zizka gets to the witty core of the play that thrust Tom Stoppard to the theatrical limelight in 1966, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

Stoppard wonders aloud who these functionaries from “Hamlet” are and what kind of life they might have unrecorded by Shakespeare’s pen.

Their world is random and unpredictable. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are so aimless, they entertain themselves with coin tricks and other benign, unchallenging diversions until they are summoned to a larger stage for some course of action.

They have no self-actuation. About the only volition they show is to walk away from the players, the same players that will eventually mount “The Murder of Gonzago” at Elsinore, while they’re in the middle of a performance on a desolate road.

These are men who sit around and wait for a purpose. Since they are Hamlet’s friends and contemporaries, one imagines them as students trying, in 20th century parlance, to find themselves. The difference is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no idea where to look for their identities. Their individuality is so muddled, they share with the rest of the world constant confusion about which is which. Rosencrantz can be greeted as Guildenstern and say nothing about it, and vice versa. We can tell them apart, but at Elsinore and everywhere else, they are interchangeable, less cogs than pawns who can be taken from a scene one minute only to return to action when bidden. If bidden.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are worse off than Samuel Beckett’s Didi and Gogo because they have nothing to anticipate, nothing to give them hope their mindless passage of days will improve or be leavened by a promise or expectation of anything better. By Stoppard’s third act, they are literally at sea, adrift on another mission to which they’ve been assigned by Claudius, King of Denmark. They are so unmotivated and lack such innate sense of self-preservation that midway through their voyage, when they read a note that calls for their immediate demise, they stare blankly at the condemning paper, royal seal and all, and don’t have the common sense or gumption to tear it up and throw it overboard. These guys don’t know how to improvise. Neither Stoppard nor R&G themselves are going to save them from the course Shakespeare designed for them three-and-a-half centuries before Stoppard takes up their story. Hamlet’s report of their deaths toward the end of “Hamlet,” and Stoppard’s sticking to it. seals their doom. The men die as stupidly as they lived. The rest is silence.

Except for Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have languished in supporting player oblivion, strutting their 10 minutes or so on stage and retiring to the land of Francisco and Oswald and Fortinbras as utilitarian baggage in “Hamlet’s” dramatis personae. My word, they’re no better than the funeral meats served coldly at the wedding feast. Thrift can find Francisco easily morphing into Rosencrantz and Marcellus to Guildenstern without most audiences being the wiser.

Tom Stoppard found a story in R&G’s nothingness. They represent so many people who amble along without purpose waiting for an invitation here, an assignment there to tell them what to do. Without direction, they don’t and cannot act. They just exist in an unending quandary about how to spend their time and wondering what, if anything, they should be doing.

Meanwhile neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern seems to be bored. Each enjoys the easy whiling away of their days. Guildenstern is curious. He likes natural philosophy and the way things are connected. Rosencrantz is good-natured, He has a happy, content disposition. It’s easy to amuse him, and he’s willing to scuttle a mission in midstream in his rambling mind lights on something else.

Shakespeare and Stoppard both paint R&G as amiable men. They are not conspirators or traitors trying to foil Hamlet and catch him in a mousetrap. They are earnest friends who are eager to assist Claudius and Gertrude in getting Hamlet past the trauma that has, of late, robbed him of his mirth. Or at least glean the reason for the melancholy even though Hamlet says he knows not wherefore how his mirth became lost. Stoppard is even shrewd enough to have Guildenstern delineate the matters that could be troubling Hamlet, such as thwarted ambitions, e.g. why the late king’s son is not crowned king in lieu of his uncle when the former king dies, and a mother marrying anyone, let alone her husband’s brother, satyr to Hyperion if you will, within weeks of becoming an unexpected widow. They don’t even know about Ophelia.

Stoppard has “Hamlet’s” number, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if you listen to them carefully, in both “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” are intelligent men who make sense. Stoppard even allows them to play cynically with Hamlet’s language, especially the hawk from the handsaw remark which sets the men comically calculating which way the Danish wind is blowing.

Because Stoppard is curious about matters that contain some mystery, because he fills “R&G” with so much verbal play, and because he has a knack for knowing when something new has to take the stage, the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky so to speak, “R&G” has the potential to be quite entertaining.

Blanka Zizka’s production maximizes that potential. Keith Conallen as Rosencrantz, and I do mean Rosencrantz, and Jered McLenigan as Guildenstern find a rhythm in their repartee that keeps you listening and lets you enjoy their puns and observations and see the pair’s individual differences.

Conallen capitalizes on Rosencrantz’s naivety and finds wonder in things that Guildenstern considers old hat. Conallen’s Rosencrantz is always up for a new adventure and takes joy from the small entertainments that come his way. He’s easy to amuse. He doesn’t need the intrigue of philosophy that occupies Hamlet and Horatio. He would just like to know why he is where he is and where he might, since he’s not doing the planning, going next.  You know, the classic existential dilemma, but without much cogitation beyond the simple, “When do I take control of my life?”

McLenigan’s Guildenstern might require more of a challenge. He is not so impressed by the players and has a philosophical bent of his own. He does cogitate and theorize.The way the world works interests him, whether it involves the probability of a random coin landing head or tails with regularity, as one might intuitively expect even though the odds for each toss are 50:50 and the number of tosses counterintuitively doesn’t change that statistical ratio, or it concerns Claudius’s motives for summoning him and Rosencrantz to diagnose Hamlet’s malaise.. As if that is their skill or talent.

McLenigan doesn’t show amusement and openness as Conallen does. He is more contemplative, more sincerely interested in figuring out the world’s physical mysteries, including the ones that affect Hamlet, his madness, and his mirth.

NealBoxThe byplay between Conallen and McLenigan is excellent. If you listen to it, you’ll hear the rhythms with which he actors keep you involved and you’ll enjoy the playfulness and scope of Stoppard’s minds. You also realize both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are suited for something, if they could only determine what it is and act logically towards achieving it.

The key to “R&G’s” wit is in the conversations the protagonists have and the rules of the various games they play in competition with the other. The trick is let Stoppard’s words do the work and not to be distracted by the physicality Zizka has imposed on the production. Or by overlong gambits such as one in which Guildenstern is trying to get to the root of something, and Rosencrantz stubbornly acts as if they’re playing a game in which they gain or lose points according to their rhetoric.

You need some movement to keep the production from being static. Two men tossing coins and engaging in badinage can become monotonous.

When people tell me they get lost in Stoppard, that his delves into math, physics, education, literary interpretation, and other subjects becomes too arcane or too dense to hold their concentration, I tell them to attend to the story and take each sequence as a means, which it is, of moving the basic forward. Understanding or appreciating the swirling depths to which Stoppard goes to make his points and make his plays metaphors for a physical phenomenon enriches the experience, but in all Stoppard, there’s enough good comedy writing and enough attention to keeping plots on a straight, comprehensible course to entertain you. It’s best to stay with the basics and follow along with those.

The same is true of Zizka’s production. The lady doth indulge too much methinks. Animation is one thing, but Zizka, as if experimenting more than working with assurance, takes movement to an extreme. Conallen and McLenigan become veritable crocodiles traversing the diameter and circumference of Matt Saunders’s round disk of a center stage on their bellies or by doing amphibious flops. There was one point I hoped to goodness Conallen had control of one of his sphincters because I saw his movements as exciting an impulse more than they enhanced Stoppard’s play.

These motions are gratuitous. Any time Conallen or McLenigan leaves an upright position, except to sit naturally, you wonder to what mindless gymnastic feat Zizka will subject them.

Scenes with Hamlet and Ophelia are more harrowing. Zizka stylizes the scene in which Hamlet extends his arms, and studies Ophelia as if to draw her, too literally. In “R&G”, she makes Shakespeare’s description into an awkward, expressionistic dance that has neither sound nor fury. Brian Ratcliffe and Sarah Gliko do well in these scenes, but they are painful to watch because they are so self-conscious and off-putting.

They’re more Brechtian than Stoppardian or Beckettian. They stun you so much with their stark unreality, you listen harder to make sure you’re not losing something in the language that is being emphasized by the choreography.

You’re not. The staging of the Hamlet-Ophelia scene amounts to intellectual twaddle saved by the clarity and simplicity with which Ratcliffe and Gliko speak their lines and communicate their feeling. The irony is without the exaggerated stylization, the poses Ratcliffe and Gliko take would count as a good, biting parody of Ophelia’s description of the scene in Shakespeare.

The “Hamlet” sequences harken back to Zizka’s piercingly good spring production of Shakespeare’s masterwork and have the same pluses and minuses. Gliko, through made to twist herself into various shapes and move at an unnatural pace in a meaningless circle, is a smart, sincere Ophelia with whom you can empathize. Steven Rishard’s Claudius and Joe Guzmán’s Polonius are again bland, comme il faut, and have no texture to them. In a way, Rishard and Guzmán have made Claudius and Polonius the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of both productions.

Krista Apple-Hodge fares better as Gertrude but rarely makes her character’s presence felt in this production.

What I’m saying is all the movement exercises and cringing and crawling were for naught. They were more distracting than enlightening, more unnatural and pseudo-intellectually strange than wondrous or insightful. I felt as if I was watching someone testing her vocabulary to see if a word or phrase illuminates a certain situation and not realizing the test failed, that simple is better. I know Blanka Zizka likes and studies movement, but her best work, and it is prolific and inspiring, comes when she has character physicalize the tension of conflict in the simplest, most intimate ways. Guiding performers to convey individual passion, and the conflict it generates is Blanka’s greatest gift. She is equally adept at it in comedy and drama. Why then resort to showy tricks neither Blanka, her actors, or “R&G” need to make them work? The awkwardness of the scenes where the most self-conscious movement takes place, compared with their clarity in spite of the wriggling and writhing, is sign enough that the spasmodic gyrations of the cast were overdone, and Zizka’s “R&G” would be just as well served without all of the labored pyrotechnics. Zizka’s “R&G” is enjoyable because it so cunningly exposes the ideas of facelessness, aimlessness, and confusion that affects intelligent, reasoning beings set against the decisive, proactive behavior of, of all people, the procrastinating, contemplative Hamlet, and makes it so fulfillingly visible and funny. It’s Stoppard’s words, Conallen’s facial expressions and eagerness to please, McLenigan’s examining all from a clinical distance, Hamlet’s unexpected breeziness, and the remarkable work of Ed Swidey as the Lead Player that make Zizka’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” a success. The basics matter, and since Conallen, McLenigan, Ratcliffe, Gliko, and especially Swidey, do not lose sight or control of them, the Wilma “R&G” entertains in spite of all the nonsense that so easily can sabotage and derail it.

Brian Ratcliffe’s Hamlet was truly enjoyable. Far from being melancholy, Ratcliffe’s prince was nonchalant and cool, easily in control of all situations in which he might find himself. His is particularly good in some throwaway scenes, like when he chases Polonius off stage with ‘Buzz Buzz.” .

Ratcliffe enjoys toying with, and showing he has the better of, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the scene in which our heroes attempt to interrogate Hamlet and find themselves responding to more questions. Conallen and McLenigan are excellent at recounting and assessing this scene when R&G are alone following it, Hamlet taking his leave to tend to the players. In Zizka’s marvelous third act, Ratcliffe is a veritable cucumber as Hamlet luxuriates in shipboard leisure — reading, sunbathing — during his forced North Sea cruise between Denmark and England. You marvel as his ease and sophisticated grace as he casually does all he can to protect himself from the perfidy of Claudius and his so-called buddies. When pirates attack the ship, Ratcliffe sword fighting in his Speedo is especially funny and more than a tad sexy.

This is certainly Ratcliffe’s year of exposure. First he is scantily clad throughout most of “Red Speedo” for Exile, and now he cavorts in again in the briefest of skivvies as Hamlet in “R&G.” Good thing the boy’s in shape. And insouciant.

The players have been mentioned several times, and thanks to the toweringly intelligent, drolly hilarious, and shrewdly reasoning performance of Ed Swidey as the lead player, their entrance is always welcome.

Death, since just about everyone in the play is destined to experience it imminently, is a major discussion in “R&G,” and Swidey expresses its fearsomeness and repose in a wonderfully written and executed speech in the middle of which he provokes Guildenstern to stab him with an eight-inch knife. Swidey’s actor dies convincingly to the point that McLenigan’s Guildenstern is fixed in shame and regret. Then, the actor, to show both his Thespian skill and the mask of death, leaps back to his feet, shows Guildenstern the prop knife that is blunt and has a blade that retracts inward. The scene is meticulous and gorgeous. It is also illustrative of life and death. Swidey could not have played it better. Nor could anyone else. In a production of fine moments — the natural ones, not the ones that involves creeping and crawling — Swidey’s mock death is exponentially the best.

The players leaven Stoppard’s scenes throughout. They show up on the road just when he back-and-forth between R&G is getting its most wearing (and wearying).

Interestingly enough, R&G are a relief to the players who, as their leader says, are nothing but a gaggle of men wearing the same shirts they did yesterday if they don’t encounter the one element that gives them purpose, an audience. Stoppard, like Shakespeare before him, uses the players to comment on the state of acting and the theater at a given time. They truly are chroniclers of a craft, profession, art, and business that prevails throughout history but often in a hardscrabble way. You see the poverty of the players as well as their determination to soldier on as practitioners of their calling, the dramatic presentation of the written and spoken word.

The players live hand-to-mouth and are not too squeamish about prostitution and other ancillary means of making a buck. They are grateful for any auditors, even the accidentally encountered R&G. The bask in the superior appreciation and genuine connoisseurship of Hamlet, and even Polonius. Caviar for the general is one thing. Being validated by the discerning is another.

Swidey is particularly deft at conveying the irony of all the situations in which his players land. He reprimands R&G for walking out on a performance staged exclusively for them. He matter-of-factly offers the boy who plays the female roles, Alfred, for sexual favors. He exudes the artistry and professionalism of his craft while performing for and speaking to Hamlet. He takes a realistic, if jaundiced look, at his plight when , like Hamlet, he has displeased Claudius, and like Hamlet andR&G, he is bound without knowing his future, for England.

Excellent throughout Zizka’s “R&G,” Swidey is brilliant to the point of being transcendent in the third of “R&G’s” three acts. He pegs matters for what they are while speaking wisely about death, demonstrating actor’s skill, and illustrating how the rational mind of the realist endowed with imagination functions.

Adam Kerbel does a splendid job as Alfred, showing fear and reluctance in addition to compliance when he offered for sex. Kerbel, even when crying or compacting his body to show his aversion to being a bawd, conveys sweetness. He does well in scenes in which the players are performing and in the sequence in which the England-bound ship is beset by pirates.

All three acts of Zizka’s “R&G” play brightly, but the third act, as the most direct and the one in which the most definitive actions are taken, is the most glorious. Zizka makes excellent use of three box-like hatches from which the stowing away actors can emerge before and after the pirate crisis. Ratcliffe, without saying a word, is amazingly surehanded in this act. Ed Swidey is a wonder.

The graffitied walls of Elsinore have more impact in “R&G” that they did in “Hamlet.” Decay and protest seem more rife in the Stoppard play, as does individualism. With the exception of Krista Apple-Hodge’s retained outfit from “Hamlet,” everyone looked right in his or her costumes by Vasilija Zivanic. As in “Hamlet,” Yi Zhao’s evocative and witty lighting almost counts as a character. Zachary Beattie=Brown’s sound design was also clever.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” runs through Saturday, June 20 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, thanks to the Wyncote Foundation’s WynTix grant, are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by visiting

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