If ever a playwright was well served by a theater company, that playwright was Tom Stoppard and that company was Jobsite Theater. The current Jobsite production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the best version of the play I've ever seen.
All of Stoppard's themes -- the confusion of life, the terror of death and, most of all, the sense of being swept up in a story out of one's control -- are there in the Jobsite production, and every problem the play has is brilliantly solved by director Katrina Stevenson and her four main actors: David M. Jenkins, Shawn Paonessa, Paul J. Potenza and Matt Lunsford.
I used to have doubts about R&G -- its too-obvious borrowings from Waiting for Godot, its moments of stasis and then of redundancy. But after seeing the Jobsite version, those doubts are history: This play works. It may owe a lot to Beckett, but it has virtues all its own and existential concerns that Vladimir and Estragon barely touch on. In the Jobsite production, all its glories are in evidence.
In case you're not much of a Shakespeare maven: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet. In that play, they're called to Elsinore by Hamlet's uncle King Claudius to try to find out what's troubling the young prince. Hamlet quickly determines that their visit is a set-up and generally refuses to make their mission a pleasant or successful one.
Finally, Claudius (of Denmark) sends Hamlet to England, and has R&G travel with him, bearing his death sentence in a sealed letter. Hamlet switches the note with one saying that R&G should be executed instead, and that's the last we hear of the luckless pair until a messenger announces that they are, indeed, finished. By that time, there are so many corpses on Shakespeare's stage, the information hardly registers.
What Stoppard does, in keeping with the modern shift of focus from royals to "common" folk, is give us this same story, but as lived by R&G. From their point of view, the tale is impossible to get a handle on. Like the protagonists in Godot, they hardly know who they are or exactly what their purpose is. But R&G also have issues that don't turn up in Beckett: an obsession with death, with the idea of destiny and with the feeling that the story they're enacting is just a sideshow to someone else's Main Event.
Helping them worry about death are the Tragedians. For R&G, these actors, led by the eloquent Player, offer proof that real, unperformed death is unthinkable. As Guildenstern says, in anguish, to the Player: "I'm talking about death -- and you've never experienced that. And you cannot act it. You die a thousand casual deaths. ... and no blood runs cold anywhere. ... But no one gets up after death -- there is no applause -- there is only silence and some second-hand clothes."
R&G are similarly concerned about the possibility of destiny -- that their lives are rushing to a terminus that is beyond their ability to avoid. So at the start of the play, the two flip a coin -- and 92 times in a row it comes up heads. The implications are terrifying: Have R&G left a part of life where there was freedom and randomness and entered an area where all is pre-ordained? And then what about their momentary glimpses of Hamlet, and their fragmentary encounters with the other members of the court? Is it possible that our lives are marginalia on someone else's text? What if the story in which we live and die bears some other character's name?
Encouraging us to ask these questions is an exceedingly strong cast, led by Jenkins and Paonessa as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In modern black suits and bowler hats, Jenkins and Paonessa come off as longtime friends so close and familiar that they've nearly become a single organism. Jenkins is the sillier one, more likely to register the absurdity of things with a clownish look or a rueful laugh. But Paonessa is the also-necessary other side of the coin, the one who feels pain more deeply and is more troubled by his inability to know the meaning of his suffering. Challenging both men is Potenza as the head Player, who can order his Tragedians to do death or sex or whatever people will pay for. I've admired Potenza's work before, but his performance as the Player is so definitive, I can no longer imagine anyone else in the role. Potenza's Player is mean, depraved, needy, flamboyant, tough and earthy. He's Stoppard's constant reminder that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is just a play, that even the most successful theatrical experience can't prepare us for our lives and deaths. As Hamlet, Matt Lunsford is just what he should be: a leading man, more glamorous than anyone else on stage. His brief mad scenes remind us that most actors who play the role could benefit from the courage to appear ridiculous.
As the Tragedians, Michael C. McGreevy (also Claudius) and Jason Evans (also Polonius) are fine; only Kari Goetz seems miscast as the hapless Alfred and Queen Gertrude: She's the wrong sex for the one (players in Shakespeare's time were all male) and too young for the other.
But Brian Smallheer's excellent set, representing the outside of a castle, makes the Shimberg Playhouse seem twice its size, and Spencer Meyers' costumes are wonderfully eclectic.
And finally a word about Katrina Stevenson's accomplishment as director. She was superb as an actor in Hurlyburly; I've regularly praised her work as a costume designer, and now she's successfully staged one of the most complicated plays in the contemporary repertoire. Her intelligence is everywhere in this profoundly satisfying production.
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