February 21, 2006

UT’s R and G breaks this winter of discontent

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays. Tom Stoppard doesn’t create a new, excessive story for Hamlet’s doomed duo. No—they’re still stuck as hapless bystanders in Hamlet’s story. And that’s his stroke of genius. Turning the play to their point of view, Stoppard uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to expand on Hamlet’s themes of existence, fate, and (in)action.

A great production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead should communicate the tension between reality and theater (all the world’s a stage, right?) and the futility of the twosome to escape its scripted fate. In this production, director Will Fulton focuses on R and G as theater, but still alludes to the other planes of reality in a satisfying interpretation.

Fulton chose to portray Rosencrantz (Sarah Fornace) and Guildenstern (Fleming Ford)—who are continually confused for each other—as random people dressed in Renaissance shirts over their jeans and high-tops and thrown blindly onto the stage. It works mainly because of the two actresses, who both convey the right amount of frustration, hope, and resignation at their dilemma: Who are Ros and Guil onstage or offstage?

Fornace, as the emotional Ros, immediately gets your sympathy, trying desperately to deal with the present (which unfortunately is a convoluted tragedy they have no control over). Ford—carrying the reason-dependent Guil like that U of C student in every Hum class—initially comes across as grating, as she constantly questions her assessment of their nonsensical situation, while nervously awaiting someone to give them an answer or an absolution. But it is Guil’s vulnerability with which the audience soon sympathizes, when she realizes that logic and deduction have no bearing.

Word play is an important part in every Stoppard play, and even more so in this one. Done correctly, it comes off a sharp, crisp repartée, particularly in the “verbal tennis” game. A few times, like when Ros and Guil rush through lines, the word play is not articulated enough. Word play is the play’s strength, and when it isn’t articulated enough, it is like the shrill banter of a mundane Gilmore Girls episode.

However, the showstopper of the play is a self-professed “actor.” Ryland Barton, in his first UT performance, steals every scene as the Player, a rogue thespian who Barton may be playing as himself. The Player and his merry band of Tragedians—costumed by M.L. Shumate as if they escaped from a Terry Gilliam movie—both befuddle and intrigue Ros and Guil for their understanding that life and death can best be summed up in theatrics.

Aside from some diction problems, Barton brings sparks to the stage every time, giving the Player exuberance and energy as he goes off into the hammy and tragic monologue that grabs the audience’s attention. But he also conveys a sense of self-awareness to the Player. He realizes and gladly accepts he is merely an actor in the tragicomedy of existence, which Ros and Guil can’t grasp. “Who decides?” Guil asks about who is marked for death in the play of Life. The Player replies, “Decides? It is written.”

Staging the play in the Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater adds to the theatricality of the production. The lighting design added to that confinement for Ros and Guil and to the melodrama of Hamlet’s world, though the execution was choppy. One complaint I have is that there was too much recorded music, which ended up distracting.

Are the answers to existence as important as the questions Ros and Guil ask? Are there even answers? Stoppard, like Shakespeare, leaves that up in the air. Nonetheless, I recommend R and G for every U of C student who wants a good laugh, or who wants to appreciate deep existential discussions that begin with 97 flips of a coin coming out heads.