Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

An instant hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, Tom Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is now showing at the Cloverdale Playhouse. -- Director Sarah Walker Thornton's ensemble of actors is in top form, turning Shakespeare's Hamlet on its head in delivering Stoppard's witty dialogue with split-second comic timing; and the themes are as resonant today as they were more than 50 years after the play's debut..

Stoppard's conceit is to make two minor characters in Hamlet the focus of his inventive study of the universal existential considerations we all share: our purpose in this life as well as contemplations on our inevitable death.

While this might appear as pretty heady stuff, Stoppard employs many comic devices as Rosencrantz [Jacob Holmberg] and Guildenstern [Marcus Clement] question their condition: they've been summoned to the Danish court, but why? Awaiting answers, they pass the time playing games [much as Vladimir and Estragon do in Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot], and are distracted by the appearance of the Player [Mike Winkelman] and his troupe of itinerant actors.

Oh yes, Shakespeare isn't forgotten here. In fact, Stoppard includes a number of verbatim scenes from Hamlet in R&G to flesh out his story and further frustrate his protagonists, much to audience delight. It doesn't hurt to have some knowledge of Shakespeare's original [there is a brief synopsis in the program], but Stoppard's play stands on its own.

Playing on J. Scott Grinstead's evocative "backstage theatre" set, and dressed in Danny Davidson-Cline's fine-tuned comically interpreted "Elizabethan" costumes, Ms. Thornton's acting troupe at the Playhouse take audiences on a two-plus hour romp that makes them exercise both their intellectual and laugh muscles, and invest in the lives of the hapless duo at the center of the action.

Mr. Holmberg and Mr. Clement are on-stage virtually the entire running time. Adept at finding the nuances of Stoppard's linguistic genius, and demonstrating enviable comfort with the plot twists and turns the author throws at them, they are one of the best "double-acts" Montgomery is likely to witness. When Mr. Winkelman's expert portrayal of the bombastic Player threatens to steal the show [in a good way as Stoppard intended], they somehow manage to retrieve the audience's attention and support.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are insignificant pawns in the political intrigues in Hamlet, but here there stature -- Everyman figures out of their element trying to figure out their place in society and, indeed, in the universe -- becomes the stuff we can all recognize in ourselves. Though their deaths are inevitable [no spoilers here; the title of the play is straightforward], these two fellows make us invest in their predicaments, care about their welfare, and cheer them on till the end.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in the Cloverdale Playhouse's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and so much enjoyment in the visual and linguistic delights on display, that we wish to stay in their company long after the final bows.