Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead @ Hilberry Theatre

Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead @ Hilberry Theatre

Wayne State University Department of Theatre
Hilberry Theatre, Detroit

Through March 14, 2009

Review by Heather Bonner

Everything from coin flipping to performing onstage becomes an existential quandary in the Hilberry Theatre’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard. Saturday night’s performance was a fun and pleasantly confusing mix of Shakespeare, philosophy and comedy, enhanced by fantastic scenic design and an energetic set of actors, who didn’t even break for intermission.

“Hamlet” is turned on its ear as we follow not the mad prince of Shakespeare’s classic but two of its minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Dylan Stuckey and Rob Pantano). These clueless gentleman, who are somewhat forgetful and easily confused, are sent for by Hamlet’s uncle and King of Denmark, Claudius (Brian P. Sage), to find out why Hamlet (James Kuhl) has suddenly adopted such a strange and borderline manic demeanor. As Hamlet heads offstage, presumably to live through the events of the original play by his name, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are stranded onstage, waiting to head him off to carry out their sleuthing duties.

alt textJames Kuhl as Hamlet and Rob Pantano as Guildenstern in “Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern Are Dead”
 by Tom Stoppard. at the Hillberry Theatre
through March 14th.

Of course, this makes for a lot of free time because Hamlet does not re-enter the stage all that often. So, between trying to figure out how to coax the information out of the prince and actually interacting with him, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend their time hypothesizing about things like probability, life and death, and how to control who enters and exits the stage. They quickly realize they have virtually no power over any of these things, just like they have so little influence over Hamlet and his behavior. But it isn’t until they are ordered by the king to escort Hamlet to England and lives are held in the balance that they find out how powerless they truly are.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s utter helplessness is best expressed in their onstage isolation, which has them running about in aimless circles. Director Joe Calarco did a great job with their staging, keeping them moving even when they are the only two people onstage and in the midst of a philosophical discussion, which would not realistically require much motion. The band of traveling players that acts out the play within Hamlet is also a riot to watch – even at intermission. These actors are recruited to perform the set changes during the break and they make a real show out of it by putting on a small act of schticky, physical comedy to amuse the remainder of the audience still in the house. Their hilarious routine doesn’t end there, however, when they double as pirates in the second act. This, along with the first act’s rehearsal for the play within “Hamlet,” shows Calarco’s true genius. Both scenes are full of hysterical and bawdy mischief that has everyone on the stage moving in chaotic tandem. There is far too much to watch and the actors are so comfortable with their direction it all looks perfectly natural – even the least natural parts… of which there are a few.

Yet, they couldn’t pull it off without scenic designer Jeffrey Strange’s set, which is absolutely gorgeous. A giant, two-sided staircase of Elsinore Palace at stage center doubles as an entrance behind large barrels on the ship of act two. Pillars, more stairs, a mast and map, archways, platforms – every detail is in place. Even the shape of the stage, as created by the tiers, stair cases, and multiple-level stage entrances is incredibly dynamic. Faux finishes look marvelous, yet they are versatile enough for the stage to be easily transformed from a palace to a ship during intermission with enough time left over for a silly, attention-grabbing skit. The Hilberry has a reputation for elaborate and impressive scenic design and this show is no exception.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is one of Stoppard’s most interesting works because it is one thing onstage and something else entirely when read in book form. Much of the action is left to the imagination when the play is being read, yet some of the conversation—especially the most existential discussions—is easier to understand when it can be parsed out. Conversely, there are so many wonderful opportunities for those interpretive elements that can be realized in its actual performance. Both manifestations of the play are well worth experiencing, but if you don’t have the time to read through a printed copy, the Hilberry’s performance is a delightful alternative.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs November 14 – March 14 at the Hilberry Theatre at 4841 Cass Avenue in Detroit at Wayne State University. Tickets range from $25 – $30 or $10 for students on the day of the performance. There are two performances left before the show closes: Feb. 26 and March 14 at 8 p.m. Contact for more information.