The title characters of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” are contemptible. In fact, they are so contemptible that we actually know of their forthcoming deaths before the start of the show. The play contemplates the dismal fate of the duo, two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose story Tom Stoppard brilliantly tells as he believes they saw it through their horror-filled eyes.
The play chronicles the journey of Rosencrantz (Mark Sonnenblick ’12) and Guildenstern (Raphael Shapiro ’12) after they are summoned by Claudius (Keith Rubin ’12), King of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle, in his attempt to discover his nephew’s (and their childhood friend’s) malicious intentions. The two protagonists travel to the palace and subsequently to England, where they accompany Hamlet, who is to be executed, unbeknownst to them, by command of the King.
In the course of these events, the two leads casually philosophize about different themes, engaging in topics ranging from the probability of 76 consecutive coin tosses to the possibility of an innate intuition of mortality. The absurdity of the play is further amplified by the recollection of random facts, some of which — such as the popular myth that the fingernails and beards of deceased people continue to grow after their death — are false. Although not factual, these seemingly arbitrary recollections aid in enhancing the futile nature of the pair’s actions, as the audience, aware of the characters’ impending deaths, remains conscious that these actions are all ultimately pointless.
Stoppard paints the two protagonists in a very similar manner, to such a degree that they often merge into one character, and the audience can have a difficult time discriminating between the two. At times, Guildenstern is the one to console Rosencrantz, but often enough the opposite happens: they exchange thoughts and they confuse their names. By the end of the play, their personalities effectively fuse into a single state of mind.
Sonnenblick and Shapiro, however, successfully channel the distinguishing traits of the two. Rosencrantz intuitively urges Guildenstern to leave, often breaking into fits of desperation which Sonnenblick effectively portrays as small panic attacks.
Guildenstern is more determined to find out what is going on and more often questions the purpose of their actions. Shapiro’s portrayal often feels more detached that Sonnenblick’s, perhaps adopting Guildenstern’s more skeptical approach and more vocal nature, verging away from Rosencrantz’s more gullible and confused state of mind.
The two cumulatively seem to undergo an existential crisis, questioning why their deaths should be significant, and, in fact, why they should die.
The stage design is very minimalistic, with the exception of the palace scenes, which are more extensively decorated. Director David Ludwig ’12 cleverly manages to take advantage of Sonnenblick and Shapiro’s thespian abilities to magnify the play’s philosophical dimension and add to its hilarity.
The actors are dressed in light modern clothes as opposed to Elizabethan attire. The wardrobe features an obscure assortment, contrasting the protagonists’ tailored European attire with that of a wandering troupe, which dons a mix-and-match of random clothing and accessories.
The two tragically ponder about the future, while finding it difficult to connect to their past. It’s difficult to discern which is sadder, that they have no future to look forward to or that their past, such an integral part of their identity and, in fact, what caused them to be in this situation in the first place, is barely a memory. The two leads, through their portrayal of the title pair, manage to give grounding to the play’s intricate plot. They successfully project the play’s hilarity, at the same time making it both comprehensible and tangible.