Plays in rep are all the rage this season. The Acting Company offers two plays performed on the exact same set (on the stage of the Pearl Theatre), with the exact same play worlds: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. While the former is the bard’s tragedy of a moody Danish prince, the latter tells this story from the perspective of its two least important characters: Hamlet’s Wittenberg University pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s an ambitious pairing that offers a robust view of the play that many consider Shakespeare’s finest.
Following the untimely death of his father, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (John Skelley) has been passed over in the line of succession in favor of his uncle Claudius (Patrick Lane). Making matters worse, Claudius quickly weds Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Jacqueline Correa), making her his “aunt-mother.” Hamlet is at a loss until a visit from the ghost of his dead father (Robert David Grant) spurs him into action: He’ll prove his uncle’s treachery and put an end to his reign…if only he could find an appropriate time to do it.
Something of a permanent grad student whose speeches seem to oscillate between incredible lucidity and raging madness, Hamlet is a tough role to play. Skelley succeeds in embodying a Hamlet that is publicly violent and unpredictable, but privately scared out of his wits. Every step he takes is hindered by doubts that he will never be the virile paragon of kingliness that his father was. It helps that Lane is built like a Lacrosse player while Skelley is an anemic bookworm with a lame haircut. The moment when Claudius puts Hamlet in a headlock says it all: This is a world ruled by uber-macho jocks.
So much of this production, efficiently directed by Acting Company Artistic Director Ian Belknap, is about unbridled masculinity and misogyny. I have never seen an Ophelia (Angela Janas) and Gertrude so abused and tossed around. Ophelia gets an especially raw deal as her meddling father Polonius (Andy Nogasky) repeatedly pushes her into the line of fire, expecting that she will be able to tame Hamlet’s madness armed only with a Bible and a virgin womb. She really doesn’t want to be there for the “get thee to a nunnery” scene, but when Polonius blocks her exit, it’s clear she has no choice.
Ophelia is usually a pretty thankless and forgettable part, but I was stunned by Janas’ Stephen-King-horror-novel of a performance: Adorned in her last scene in a nightie and clown makeup, Ophelia has completely given up on sweetness and gentility in favor of animal sexuality and violence. Keep this girl away from sharp objects. It’s thrilling to watch and gives a whole new perspective on an oft-too-neglected role.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1966) makes it its mission to shed light on two neglected characters. Rosencrantz (Grant Fletcher Prewitt) and Guildenstern (Ian Gould) spend a lot of stage time tossing coins, debating philosophy, and generally trying to figure out what exactly they’re doing in Denmark. "Let me get it straight. Your father was king. You were his only son. Your father dies. You are of age. Your uncle becomes king…unorthodox,” Rosencrantz remarks to Guildenstern, who pretends to be Hamlet so they can practice what they will say to him when they finally reunite with the prince. A sad comment on pervasive class and political power, even when the play is about the lesser characters, they still spend an awful lot of time talking about their “betters.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead could be alternately titled Waiting for Godot (Shakespeare Edition), with long passages like:
Guildenstern: Are you happy?
Guildenstern: Content? At ease?
Rosencrantz: I suppose so.
Guildenstern: What are you going to do now?
Rosencrantz: I don't know. What do you want to do?
While such absurdist theater gives its audience a lot to chew on when it comes to the nature of life, it is extremely difficult to make interesting on stage. It often comes down to the actors doing the heavy lifting. Gould and Prewitt turn in competent performances. You’ll get through the 140 minutes without being bored, but you’re not likely to remember much of what went on. One exception is "The Player" (Darien Battle): Armored in gray and black paisley, Battle relishes in portraying the smug actor-manager who leads a troupe of players for the play-within-a-play scene.
It’s cool that these two productions (with two different directors) use the same actors in the same roles in the same costumes on the same set. It really gives you the sense of viewing an expansive world that can be spun around and inspected up close and far away. If you can only see one, pick Hamlet, but a viewing of both offers a rich exploration of a timeless tale.