A classic Shakespeare play will be turned on its head this Thursday through Saturday in Kenyon College Dance and Drama Club’s (KCDC) production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead works on the assumption that the audience knows Hamlet, the source material. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are alive and real only in our minds, can they ever truly die? KCDC doesn’t seem to think so, and brings them roaring back to life for a Kenyon audience.
The play follows two characters who usually inhabit the background of Shakespeare’s Hamlet — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two are often confused for each other, even by themselves. With Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell ’84 at the helm, Rosencrantz, played by Henry Nash ’18, and Guildenstern, played by Miles Shebar ’20, move in patterns across the Bolton stage, playing, fighting and making up as only two lifelong friends can.
Playwright Stoppard explores the meaning of the self onstage, toying with the audience’s prior knowledge of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as players. At one point, Rosencrantz yells “fire” into the audience and admonishes the viewers for not leaving the theatre to save their own lives. The characters in this play can see the viewers, but they are unable to break through the barrier of the fourth wall. They are trapped in their inability to change their own fates or leave their own narratives. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters struggling to be people, and their toil is at times heartbreaking.
Stoppard’s fast-paced dialogue defines the performance. The lines are snappy and witty, and whiz past at a million miles an hour. The audience finds itself getting quips thirty seconds after they are spoken and exactly at the same moment as the next one comes along. The audience is on a perpetual delay in Stoppard’s plays and must simply hang on for dear life, and this work is no exception.
Tazewell’s directing detracts nothing from the meat of the play — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship. Nash is a solid, quiet and feeling Rosencrantz. He grounds Shebar’s Guildenstern, who is more bouncy, vivid and fiery. Of the two, Nash demonstrates his experience through his acting. He has a greater stage presence and gives himself time to draw the audience’s eye. Both leads almost single-handedly command the stage, slinging lines at each other at a rapid pace for the two hours of the play.
The supporting cast is nearly as brilliant as its leading men. The Tragedians, a theater troupe whose name is ironic due to their penchant for comedy, are headed by a sharp Kyla Spencer ’18 as The Player. She manipulates the two leading men and revels in their confusion. She seems to know all and embraces her identity as an actor while Guildenstern flounders, thinking himself human.
The other Tragedians round out the troupe, at times petty and at others surprisingly funny. Ethan Starr ’20 as Alfred is a surprising delight. His physical comedy sparks on an otherwise traditional stage.
Associate Professor of Drama Rebecca Wolf’s lighting and set design looks out of time and place. With a wooden floor treatment reminiscent of both a ship’s deck and a vaguely Elizabethan multi-level playing structure, it is evocative of almost every time period simultaneously. Lucas O’Brien ’18, fresh from his costume work on Hamilton: An American Musical this summer, dresses the characters in a similarly timeless fashion. At one point the prince of Denmark himself, played maniacally by Adam Riva ’21, emerges onstage dressed in a tunic that could have been designed by Sir William Nicholson, illustrator of the famous image of an art nouveau Hamlet. O’Brien’s designs can never grow old or die the death of the trend, marking him as one to watch.
Performances are on Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 8:30 and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m at the Bolton Theater.