Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Presented by the American Shakespeare Center at the Harry Sudakoff Conference Center, Sarasota, Florida. February 3 and 4, 2009. Directed by Jim Warren. Costumes by Erin M. West. Fights by Colleen Kelly. With Luke Eddy (Hamlet), Daniel Kennedy (Ghost), Jonathan Reis (Claudius), Kelley McKinnon (Gertrude), Dennis Henry (Polonius), Josh Carpenter (Laertes), Brandi Rhome (Ophelia), Rick Blunt (Rosencrantz), Ginna Hoben (Guildenstern), and others.
Skull? Check. Inky cloak? Check. It was a production of Hamlet alright. The American Shakespeare Center began their performance by hawking their wares (both plays and trinkets on the merchandise table), an authentic Renaissance bit of pre-theatre and a perfect segue into their performance philosophy. The cast announced that, as with all their shows, the lights would be left on and the actors would interact with the audience because these conditions better approximate the original conditions under which Hamlet was performed. All the actors donned Elizabethan dress, and the thrust stage stood sparse, with few props and scenery, much like the Globe.
From the beginning, Jim Warrens production sought to make the play accessible to novice Hamlet viewers. Before Bernardo and Francisco took the stage, the cast put on a brief song-and-dance summary of Hamlet. To keep the running time at about two hours, with no intermission, they trimmed a number of the play's more difficult bits of banter and cut most of the Fortinbras plot. Among the parts retained, the comic sections were particularly emphasized.
But Warren also appeased scholars of the play's intricate textual history. In his informal preamble to the performance, Guildenstern addressed the differences in sequence between the Quarto and Folio versions (including a detailed handout). To decide which version would be performed that night, he flipped a coin (a nice symmetrical touch, considering Rosencrantz's opening scene the following night): heads for Quarto, tails for Folio. Heads it was.
Performing on the thrust, with the lights on and few props, a cast of eleven played the twenty-five-plus characters, with the supporting cast doubling many roles. Daniel Kennedy first appeared as the Ghost, and reemerged later as the Player King and the gravedigger, all strategic roles that trace Old Hamlet's absent presence in the play. Kennedy, who trained as a Clown, also brought humor to each part: the Ghost pestered Hamlet with his repetitious "Swear!" causing Hamlet to roll his eyes; the Player King was frustrated by Hamlet's didacticism; and the gravedigger verbally sparred with the young Prince. He also asked a nearby audience member to hold a skaill for him. Dennis Henry doubled as Polonius and Osric. His Polonius was the bumbling senex, and he delivered his rambling, longwinded lines in such a way as to keep the audience laughing through the first two acts; his Osric, too, was a slow-witted buffoon. Josh Carpenter oscillated between the serious and the comic, as he played both Laertes and a cross-dressing player in "The Murder of Gonzago." His strong physical presence, as both protective brother and flamboyant player, added depth to his two supporting roles. Thankfully, Claudius (Jonathan Reis) and Gertrude (Kelly McKinnon) did not double parts; both appeared artificial and uncomfortable in their roles on stage--perhaps much like the figures that they played. Ophelia (Brandi Rhome) delivered her lines flatly in the opening scenes, but her two mad appearances were compelling, with her distraction and "snatches of old lauds" reminiscent of Kate Winslet in Branagh's production.
But if the supporting actors lay about Fortune's waist, it was Hamlet (Luke Eddy) who sat upon her cap. He did not "out Herod Herod," but he did outdo the rest of the cast, holding a mirror up to Nature, and the nature of the play. From acts one to five, his Hamlet blended the young hero's wit and sarcasm with his deep interiority and inquisitiveness. One audience member remarked that during Hamlet's first soliloquy, she could see his pain reflected in his eyes. Thus, his absence during act four was deeply felt, and his reemergence in the graveyard scene kick-started the play's movement toward its fast-paced conclusion.
The following night fast-forwarded four hundred years, with the ASC's production of Tom Stoppard's "wickedly funny companion piece to Hamlet" (Jim Warren, Program Notes)--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Since, as Warren explained, the "productions were directed, designed, and rehearsed together to make the most out of the shared scenes and situations," the inversion of space--the off-stage in Hamlet becomes the on-stage in Rosencrantz--was marked and effective. With no change of costumes or assigned roles, Stoppard's play was presented primarily as a re-telling of Hamlet rather than a modern spin-off. The cast even prefaced the performance with the same plot-summary jingle as the night before. Both productions employed vaudeville elements: the dumb show in Hamlet was exaggerated (and even funny) while Rosencrantz's concluding bit of metatheatre was cinematic and eerie. Moreover, the plays juxtaposed the "Rosenstern synthesis" of Hamlet with the pair's different subjectivities in Rosencrantz. Hamlet's chums physically emerged from the margins and into the forefront overnight.
Rick Blunt as Rosencrantz and Ginna Hoben as Guildenstern handled Stoppard's difficult repartee well, from discussions of a "short, blunt human pyramid" to the detailed effects of a southerly wind on cutting instruments. Their clear articulation and accompanying gestures made the heavier philosophical bits accessible, and each of their existential dialogues was punctuated by laughter. Blunt convincingly portrayed Rosencrantz's naive optimism, but given Hoben's weaker stage presence and delivery, the two were unequally yoked.
The most powerful moment of the two days came in the final scene of Rosencrantz, which nearly replicates the final scene of Hamlet. The characters from Hamlet appeared in the same black, ominous costumes, stood in the same formation, and spoke the same lines as the night before; but Rosencrantz concludes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--two characters defined by absence--present. Their position at center stage, hanged, dangling above the rest of the cast foregrounded their oft-forgotten deaths. Stoppard's more democratic re-telling dramatizes that "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity." Thus, death became the omnes exeunt. Game and match.
The rest was applause.
CAMERON HUNT, University of South Florida