Are we so insignificant that we are interchangeable? Is there any certainty in life? What is the true experience of death? These are a few of the questions that the lead characters consider in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which opened on February 13, 2013. Written as an extension of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the existentialist work conjectures what happens offstage to the two famous courtiers who are persuaded to find out why the Danish prince has gone mad.
While waiting in the Danish court at Elsinore, the two forlorn fellows engage in coin tosses, language games, run into an acting troupe and conduct an amusing yet inadequate interrogation of Hamlet. The running gag throughout the play is everyone’s inability to distinguish Rosencrantz from Guildenstern, not assisted by the fact that they wear identical costumes. At times, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern give the stumblebum friends in Dumb and Dumber a run for their money with their confusion over their own identities. Yet oddly, their philosophical arguments inadvertently or perhaps purposely raise enlightening questions.
The Tragedians are reminiscent of the well-meaning, yet incompetent actor’s troupe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who mess up their parts and continually break the fourth wall during their performance.
Stoppard’s metatheatrical piece is no light fare and, despite the proliferation of witty repartée, requires concentration and full attention. The subject matter, similar to that of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, can be dry on its own. Fortunately, Director Joseph Ziegler has chosen to emphasize the musical and entertaining diversions provided by the Tragedians, whose repertoire consists of love, lust and mandatory bloodshed (since that is what audiences require), which provides vivacity to this almost-three-hour production. Thankfully, there are two intermissions that manage to keep the play from dragging on.
Veteran stage and screen actor Kenneth Welsh is a delight as the lead player of the Tragedians. Welsh injects the role with a balanced mix of pride and vulnerability. Ted Dykstra’s face is a canvas of a million expressions, reflecting Rosencrantz’s sheer dumbfoundedness punctuated by periods of comprehension. Jordan Pettle turns in a strong performance in the role of the wiser of the two henchmen. Where the two actors shine is in the execution of the lightning-quick, philosophical exchanges that characterize the play.
Dana Osborne’s innovative recreation of a ship allows the Tragedians to extract themselves impossibly from the ship’s hull much like the never-ending clowns who climb out of a Volkswagen. David Ben’s magic tricks deftly performed by Dykstra elicit ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. Kevin Lamotte displays an artistic touch with lighting, particularly effective while creating the mood of a dark night upon the sea and later, an early morning sunrise.
Staged in the round, Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is engaging, heady and humorous: just as absurdist theatre was meant to be.
Soulpepper Theatre’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs until March 2, 2013 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery Historic District.