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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Following the players: FTP’s traveling ‘Guildenstern’ amuses

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Clever stage direction and stellar acting made the Free Play Theatre Cooperative’s production “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” an enjoyable experience. However, Tom Stoppard’s uneven and muddled script left the audience feeling dissatisfied.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the often forgotten minor characters from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” take center stage in Stoppard’s script. In Shakespeare’s mammoth play, their presence is almost negligible as their only role is to spy on the troubled, possibly mad Prince of Denmark (which they do unsuccessfully). While their presence is barely noticed in the play, their deaths are even less memorable. However, Stoppard’s script focuses on the friends as they come to terms with the fact that they have little or no control of their fates.

Director Lily Nagy-Deak ’11 and Stage Manager Kelsey Strouse ’13 did an excellent job using stage direction to emphasize the theme of unreality. The difference between being an actor, a part of the play, and an observer, a witness to the play, was blurred so the two roles were almost indistinguishable from each other. The effect was that while the audience watched the production, they also, unsettlingly became a part of it.

The production was a “traveling-show,” attendees following ushers around the Schwartz building, pausing to witness brief scenes. The first one took place in front of a side entrance, the audience crowded around Rosencrantz (Rachel Garbus ’13) and Guildenstern (Rachel Kelmenson ’13) as they flipped coins, heads coming up an impossible 92 times. This is the first time the main characters and the audience with them realize that not all is right in the real world, that they, in fact, might not even occupy the real world at all.

By having no separation between the actors and the viewers, along with attendees physically approaching scenes instead of simply watching them, Nagy-Deak and Strouse effectively place their audience members in the shoes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two friends pay for an actor troupe’s performance and discover that they have become part of a play, while the audience undergoes a similar experience.

Another highlight of the play was the acting. Garbus and Kelmenson both had great comedic timing, and when given funny material, they executed their lines with impressive style. Yoni Bronstein ’13 as the head of the Tragedians, an acting troupe, mysteriously known as “The Player,” was particularly adept at slapstick physical comedy, which always received appreciative laughs.

Unfortunately, the play faltered when, at turns, it became serious. This was not from poor acting, but from the script’s abrupt shifts in tone. The main characters would be laughing one minute and hyperventilating from grief and fear the next. There seemed to be no real transitions, thus creating the issue that the audience did not know whether to empathize with their grief or to laugh at it.

The play also suffered from attempting to juggle too many themes: death, reality, fate, the acting experience—all set against the backdrop of “Hamlet.” While separately the themes were interesting and led to enlightening philosophical discussions between the main characters, especially concerning the nature of and acceptance of death, taken all together the themes were a confusing mess.

In the end, though, the Free Play Theatre Cooperative’s production of Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” was engaging because it was ambitious, at times amusing and occasionally insightful. While it was, at times, confusing, overall it made for an entertaining evening.