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Common People

Tom Stoppard's Early Work Flips Classes and Tones of Shakespeare Tragedy

DEAD AND DON'T KNOW IT: (from left) Tony Tsendeas, Dana Whipkey, and Joe Brady can't float above it all.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/12/2006

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard

At the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival through April 23

One of the recurring jokes in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is that people can’t tell them apart. Rosencrantz is always being called Guildenstern, and Guildenstern is always being called Rosencrantz. It’s a joke with a bite, for these two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet are such nobodies that other folks can’t be bothered to remember the young men’s names. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are nothing more than disposable pawns in the chess game between Prince Hamlet and his usurper uncle Claudius.

And yet it doesn’t take long for us in the audience to tell them apart in the production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. Guildenstern is the shorter, smarter one, forever trying to analyze their situation and find a way out. Rosencrantz is the taller, dumber one, willing to go with the flow and take life as it comes. Neither strategy has much effect; the duo starts out doomed and remains doomed. The title, a line from Shakespeare’s play, gives away the ending.

Nonetheless, this is a very funny play, especially the way actor Joe Brady emphasizes Guildenstern’s brow-furrowing intensity and the way actor Dana Whipkey emphasizes Rosencrantz’s attention-drifting goofiness. Even pawns are capable of feelings, but they’re also capable of self-delusion, screwups, and terrible decisions, and every mishap gets a laugh.

“As soon as we make a move,” Guildenstern complains, “they’ll come pouring in from every side, shouting obscure instructions, confusing us with ridiculous remarks, messing us about from here to breakfast and getting our names wrong.”

So, rather than make a move, they wait for orders. Like the tramps in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they pass the time with banter and games, assuming that someone will eventually show up and tell them what to do. They toss gold coins in the air and 96 straight times the coin comes up heads. Guildenstern worries that such an improbability means that they are being manipulated by a deity or a playwright; Rosencrantz just pops his winnings into his bag.

The playwright theory gains some credibility when the two friends encounter a theatrical troupe on the road to London. The Player King, who is both the ensemble’s director and its pimp, is played by Tony Tsendeas in a pointy goatee and black villain’s costume. A born hustler, the Player King panders to the audience’s every desire. You want romantic melodrama? Here you go. You want murder and mayhem? No problem. You want to dispense with the sublimated formalities and go backstage to fuck the actors? That will cost a little extra.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the royalty get almost all the lines and the commoners are left with but a handful. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offer the same characters but with the proportions reversed. Almost all the lines are delivered by the Player King and the two title characters, and because director James Kinstle has cast three strong actors as the leads, this low-budget production of an ambitious play works far better than you might think.

The actors do sometimes struggle with the acoustics of the high-ceilinged Hampden church that houses the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival; the set is minimalist at best; some of the supporting cast are more mannered than manlike; and the costumes are not only unconvincing but also distracting. On the other hand, the Elizabethan singers and musicians, who perform in both a preshow concert and during the show itself, lend a lively Renaissance Festival ambiance to
the proceedings.

But it’s Tsendeas, Brady, and Whipkey who carry the show. All three have a knack for showing us how comically ridiculous a person can appear when his good intentions and best-laid plans are kicked apart by fate’s big boot. All three actors also reveal how much that can hurt, and that makes this a comedy with an edge. It’s because they’re trying so hard to make things go right that it’s so funny—and so painful—when things go wrong.

Stoppard has been clever and witty in every play he has written, but sometimes he’s nothing but clever and witty. But in this 1967 outing, his first full-length play, Stoppard gave his jokes some weight. The weight came from Shakespeare, of course, but Stoppard handled it well, and so does the cast in Hampden.

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