Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Smaller Than Life

Local Arts Reviews

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Smaller Than Life

The Off Center,

through August 5

Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min

The script's the thing in this verbose 1966 Tom Stoppard play. Adapted for the screen in 1990, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a clever inversion of Shakespeare's Hamlet wherein two minor characters, hapless courtiers, friends of the prince and pawns of the king, are brought centerstage. This zoom-in on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leaves their characters grainy, endearingly smaller-than-life even in their stardom, and with such fragmentary identities that they habitually mistake themselves for each other. Truth in advertising: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead men walking. As they float adrift on a sea of intrigue about which they know little, the pair -- part Bill & Ted, part Monty Python -- resorts to time-killing games like coin flipping and, most famously, the conversational "Questions" match.

For all the ingenuity of the setup, this is not an easy show to stage. The wordiness and convoluted philosophizing demand precision and energy (i.e., lines read loud and fast). Unfortunately, this Disciples of Melpomene production is, like our heroes' predicament, rickety and ponderous. While the elaborate stage set is impressive and the actors all capable, prevailing climatic factors (The Off Center is particularly hot and loud of late) contrive with Joanna Garfinkel's and Dan Bisbee's lackadaisical co-direction to all but ensure discomfort on the part of the audience.

Bisbee, looking very Kenneth Branagh in his high boots and bleached hair, plays Hamlet, and his performance, which consists of lines delivered with his back more often than not to the audience, does not generate faith in his directorial abilities. Jesse Wiles as Rosencrantz approaches glee but settles for a kind of feeble good nature. Brandon Crow, whose fine talent for deadpan was evident last fall in All in the Timing, here plays Guildenstern with a noble's stoicism (though it's hard to tell whether he's showing fortitude in the face of Denmark's or this production's ill luck). Sam Grimes bounds around devilishly as the Player and, bless his soul, enunciates.

When describing the role of the spectator, Rosencrantz gestures knowingly at the audience, and there may be further attempts in this production to coax relevance out of the material. But subtleties are lost in the mumbling of the actors (many of whom are clad in heavy coats) and the hum of the air conditioner (which, for the record, is in full operation after a weekend setback). More than one scene change creates dead air, filled with either half-hearted singing or the players' painful medley of kazoo, tambourine, and toy flute. The long running time and slow pace are enough to dampen anyone's curiosity about the play's metaphysical import.

Aside from the startlingly bad music, this Disciples production offers few innovations other than a ghost puppet at the very beginning and the cast's backward curtain call (a novelty that evinces more cheek than charm). This is one of those wordy, witty plays for which lack of momentum does, indeed, sound a death knell. The production appears (like the overheated, drowned-out, sparsely lit actors) to be gasping for air.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard, Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, William Shakespeare, The Off Center, Disciples of Melpomene, Joanna Garfinkel, Dan Bisbee, Jesse Wiles, Brandon Crow, Sam Grimes, Ada Calhoun

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