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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

On Guard for Avant Garde

By Tom Stoppard
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.,
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Directed by Jim Warren

Production picture
Rick Blunt as Rosencrantz and Ginna Hoben as Guildenstern at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

We had never seen nor read this play. Thank goodness we saw it in tandem with this troupe's production of Hamlet, utilizing the same actors in the same roles that cross both plays. In particular, Daniel Kennedy as the leading Player turned a confusing talk-about into an engaging philosophical discussion and captivating stagework, and Josh Carpenter reprising his role as the tragedian (Alfred) performing the Player Queen proved a great comic foil with a performance of lithe physicality.

This is not to slight Rick Blunt and Ginna Hoben as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—or vice versa, as even the two of them are uncertain who was who. Both brought energy and passion to their parts along with their innate understanding of Blackfriars stagework (Hoben hiding under the legs of an audience member sitting on the stage, and Blunt getting seasick into that member's lap). The fault is Stoppard's; his characters gab on incessantly more than even Shaw's, and often incomprehensibly with inside jokes we are never made privy to (my son describes the play as literary masturbation). The holes in the action (when did the duo desert the players, for instance, as the players claim?), the lack of the most important crossover scene with Hamlet (when the prince demands of Guildenstern that he play upon a pipe), and the jump from road to castle to boat to death led us to hypothesize that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead all the while.

If we are wrong and must take it on the chin for our lack of appreciation of this “modern classic,” then we counter that Stoppard's confusing storytelling undermines the play's insightful contemplation of the state of death, and he sacrifices a great opportunity to truly counter the actions of Hamlet with the tragedy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the sake of avant-garde theater.

Eric Minton
April 28, 2009

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