Many undergraduates are familiar with Tom Stoppard’s existential tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Some were no doubt exposed to the three-act play in high school; depending on section leader preference, about half of all students who take English 129a are required to read it at the culmination of the semester.
But watching the Yale University Dramatic Association’s lively production of the 1966 play does not yield the same experience as attempting to parse the script while sitting around a brightly-lit wooden table in LC. The show, produced by Marisa Alford ’05 and directed by Lauren Stripling ’05, is a two-and-a-half hour festival of absurdity, replete with wacky optical illusion sets and a soundtrack dominated by a shrill recorder, a pair of kazoos and a plastic drum reminiscent of preschool. Sound designer Justin Hatchimonji ’06 uses the eclectic classical soundtrack (half of which is performed live and half of which is piped in) to enhance the action onstage. The funhouse-like set by Kelsey Lents ’05 and vibrant costumes by Celia Muller ’06 drive home the play’s existentialist message.
While these smart decisions earn the actors audible chortles at the moment of the gags, the play as a whole drags on much too long for all but the die-hard Stoppard fan or those experiencing existential crises of their own. The play opens with the famous coin-toss scene in which Guildenstern and his guileless counterpart Rosencrantz are aghast and childishly delighted, respectively, over the fact that a coin thrown nearly 100 consecutive times has landed on its head side. The scene introduces us to the main characters and provides a preview of the attitudes they hold throughout the show. It also allows a sneak peak of the modus operandi each will use in his attempt to untangle (or be blissfully unaware of, in Rosencrantz’s case) the intricacies of his own existence.
Guildenstern, played by Max R. Broude ’07, behaves somewhat like Rosencrantz’s brother, pushing the latter to reach for a deeper understanding of his own situation or simply to snap out of an embarrassingly all-consuming stupor. Rosencrantz, played by Nicholas Collura ’07, is a crowd-pleaser because of Collura’s immersion in the character. His ceaseless hyperactivity, constant expression of bewilderment and Pillsbury Doughboy-esque chuckle enhance the character outlined in Stoppard’s script.
Broude and Collura are supported by a talented cast, including all the key players from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” But the scene-stealers of the show are the roving band of tragedians, played by Alex Johnson ’08, Colette Gunn-Graffy ’05, Taylor Chapman ’05, Alice Shyy ’08 and Evan Joiner ’07. The members of the group regularly stage short previews of the variety of pay-per-view peep shows they specialize in and perform a surprisingly harmonious theme song on instruments like kazoos and recorders every time they enter. The group delivers other miniature physical punch lines, such as affecting over-the-top theatrical poses and freezing in them. These silly antics inspire contagious delight in audience members, and the success of the actors who play the tragedians in the play is one of the key factors that makes watching the live production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” more entertaining than reading it.
For instance, when the tragedians take a page from Shakespeare and mime the “Murder of Gonzago,” Gunn-Graffy, adorned with a painted-on handlebar mustache, plays the lusty Claudius to the hilt. Her maniacal facial contortions and expressive gestures highlight the utility of the tragedians in breaking up the sometimes monotonous flow of existentialist self-examination.
No doubt, watching the Dramat’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is a treat. The amusement and diversion derived from watching the show is quite different from the experience one would receive by reading the witty play. The only problem is that the production is very long, and the meandering, nonlinear story arc does not help the mounting restlessness the average theatergoer begins to experience starting around the middle of the second act of this play. At such a point, the viewer may feel that the play’s essential question has no answer. The slapstick scenes hinging on the blithe ignorance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the disparity in intelligence between the two friends seem amusing but nonessential.
Overall, if you have some familiarity with the play or are curious and think you can stomach a rather long introduction to the world of Stoppard, give “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” a chance. The production is funny and well-acted, and you won’t be required to regurgitate inane analyses or second-hand opinions in order to secure a sufficient class participation grade.