ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (Wilma): A contemporary classic, in three parts

Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan star as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.
Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan star as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Tom Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is perhaps, aside from Waiting for Godot, the most ubiquitous work of postmodern drama. Its permanent lease on university syllabi is compounded by its status as the work of an authentically famous playwright—a rare distinction in this flatscreen multiplex we call the modern world. Stoppard (and Mamet and pretty much no one else) is part of what will likely be the last generation of playwrights to achieve what we now understand as “popular success,” meaning a name that echoes not just throughout mainstream theater but mainstream culture at large. If we need our Shakespeares and Ibsens and Wilders in order to attract an audience for whom theater is little more than a history course, then the need for Stoppard serves more important purpose: to persuade that same audience of the continued relevance of theater, to show them that, even in the last fifty years—the years of blockbuster movies and cable television and the internet—there have been plays and playwrights that have significantly (if quietly and intermittently) impacted popular culture.

The theater-maker’s task, then, is not simply to perform the play but to make of it a sort of living museum exhibit. Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka’s approach to this is as logical as it is novel: place ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN right up against its source fodder, Hamlet (which ran at the Wilma immediately previously; read the Phindie review here) and use the same actors in the same roles. Zizka thus builds a bridge connecting the well-worn and profitable old classics to the forward-thinking and medium-forwarding new classics—as if placing them on the same bookshelf—an implication that works of contemporary theater can still have the blood of greatness—of classicness—barreling through their veins. In furthering this narrative, Zizka directs the play with both respect for the material and love for the characters—sometimes too much love.

We critics are in many ways like the heroes (if we can call them that) of Stoppard’s play: charged with what we convince ourselves is an important and necessary task, we put all our intellectual energies toward getting to the bottom of that task only to—tragically but inevitably—fail. Each time out of the box and onto the keyboard we think, yes, this time I’ve got it; and each time we fall back into our pre-scripted parts. Our inability to break the pattern maddens us so that we, by compulsion, repeat it, again and again ad infinitum. The pointlessness of trying to write something new and illuminating about Stoppard’s play allows me to skip the first part of the critic’s script—summary of the action—and skip right to the second part: here’s what I liked and here’s what I didn’t like.

I liked the cast. Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan as the title characters are as quick and funny as Stoppard’s existential lemmings ought to be, and Ed Swidey (as the First Player) is, as always, a commanding and magnetic force. But Zizka’s willingness to let her actors milk their jokes (and even the spaces between the jokes) adds minutes to an already wordy, lengthy production. In a scene where our heroes lament their inability to glean what afflicts their “friend” Hamlet (Brian Ratcliffe, in the sole role change from Hamlet), Zizka has Conallen and McLenigan slink along the upstage wall, making various, progressively abstract bodily expressions of comic existential anguish. The audience howls at the silliness of the actors’ behaviors, but as a consequence a single page of dialogue takes several minutes of stage time. (This happens again in a later scene, where Conallen is asked to get up and walk over to the wings every time McLenigan asks specifics about what Hamlet is doing in the other room; the audience laughs at Rosencrantz’s exasperation, but the play has lost time that subsequent scenes only struggle to make up for.)

That Zizka’s production contains not one but two intermissions is not, in theory, problematic. Stoppard’s play is not short, and its three acts are roughly equal in length. (In my copy, for example, the first two acts measure forty-two pages apiece, while the third is an only slightly slighter thirty.) But this sensibility fails to account for two things: pauses for laughs and added action.

Jered McLenigan, Ed Swidey, and Keith Conallen in ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.
Jered McLenigan, Ed Swidey, and Keith Conallen in ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.
One of the more depressing realities of theater in a minor metropolis is that a large percentage of the audience is occupied by people who work in the local theater industry. Ticket sales suffer from industry discounts and young people not directly involved with theater-making have little incentive to venture from their homes and pay fine dining prices for entertainment, even if it’s guaranteed to be of superior quality. The flipside, though, is that a play about theater will always be a hit. The roving gang of players that dominates much of R&G’s stage time got a copious, possibly disproportionate share of the laughs and applause from the opening night crowd (when the proportion of theater insiders is further exaggerated), as did the several fourth-wall-penetrating moments between Rosencrantz and Guildensterrn themselves. (The woman sitting behind me had a wild, cackling laugh that would’ve served the FBI well in Waco; when I turned around, I recognized her as an actress I’d recently seen in a local production.)

The theater artists in the crowd laughed heartily because they have a special relationship with comedy that plays at the foibles of their profession, but also because the desire to broadcast that relationship is difficult to suppress. Thus the pace of the performance is slowed so that the audience can pause to appreciate a moment of solidarity that has emerged between themselves and Stoppard and his characters (and to prove to each other that such moments are meaningful not just because of their inherent comedy, but because of how that comedy relates to them as theater artists). It’s a beautiful thing, really—the very definition of catharsis, made even stronger by the camaraderie of shared experience—but it slows down an already lengthy, dense work, to which Zizka adds two intermissions and a lot of unnecessary physical comedy.

A theater experience that lasts two and three quarter hours is not, in itself, bad—to criticize a work for its length alone would be very suburban indeed—but in order to sustain that time frame (and in order to earn multiple pace-breaking intermissions) the production needs energy and life. Zizka’s production has some of this—Swidey’s First Player, especially, keeps us alert and laughing—but Stoppard’s text is such a sprawling, dizzying dance of English wit and philosophical speculation that it requires just the right jet engine to keep it moving steadily while also communicating its high concepts without distortion or laboriousness. It’s a tough job, and I don’t doubt Zizka’s ability to tackle it; many of the play’s greatest scenes remain as intellectually and comically gripping as ever in her hands. But there’s an oomph that’s missing here, a propulsion that Stoppard’s work not only begs for but requires. There’s a sweet spot between a performance that runs roughshod over the play’s deeper themes and one that is weighed down by philosophical baggage that it lacks the energy to carry. All Zizka has to do is break out her scissors and find it. [The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street]. May 20-June 20, 2015;

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