In the words of Nell Bang-Jensen, the Wilma Theater’s dramaturg, Tom Stoppard is the "playwriting king of upcycling" – besides jumping off from Hamlet to produce Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, he has no compunction in reusing his jokes and observations for later works. (Whether the new products are of greater value than the original material is of course a matter of personal taste.) The concepts, if not the exact vocabulary, of transformative works and intertextuality have been around certainly since the time of Shakespeare (who based Hamlet on medieval Danish legends and potentially another play about the same material) and probably since the first time the human race had more than one story to tell. However, referring to it as "upcycling" brings with it some decidedly contemporary connotations that highlight why the philosophies of both Stoppard and Shakespeare are particularly suited to the Wilma. The theater’s production of Hamlet earlier this spring firmly linked Denmark’s rotten-ness with modern political discontent and social upheavals. At the same time, director (and Founding Artistic Director) Blanka Zizka has been working to develop programs to foster local talent and establish a resident company for the Wilma, and to that end decided to accompany Hamlet with its logical companion while bringing back the same cast and setting. These upcycled interests intersect in the Wilma’s funny and innovative production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan reprise their roles as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively (or possibly not, for all the characters know), and skillfully balance the cerebral nature of the play with physical and verbal comedy. Conallen imbues Rosencrantz with a hint of almost childlike innocence without ever verging on the twee, and makes full and hilarious use of the logical flipside: childlike petulance. McLenigan, meanwhile, gives Guildenstern’s philosophical tangents a restless energy that conveys the duo’s desperate search for equilibrium while also perfectly complementing the slapstick shenanigans. Both actors have great chemistry and excel at physical comedy. They flop, roll, and crawl around the stage with such assurance that it becomes perfectly in-character for Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern to continue their metaphysical crisis sprawled over the stairs and face-down in gravel. McLenigan and Conallen also exquisitely grasp the negative space of acting: a great deal of the production’s humor relies on their ability to break purposefully long pauses at precisely the right instance of comic timing.
The rest of the ensemble ably supports the comedic power play, led by Ed Swidey as the First Player. Swidey exudes confidence and only semi-ironic self-aggrandizement, the perfect foil to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s bewilderment and lack of self-hood. The rest of the players provide some excellent live music and a constant stream of low-key but entertaining background gags. The actors reprising their roles from Hamlet recreate their performances with almost exact faithfulness, juxtaposing them with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s absurdity for sequences of transformative comedy.
Most of Matt Saunders’ set design is also virtually unchanged, with the golden thrust stage of Elsinore still standing in contrast to the graffitied walls of Denmark. There are a few tweaks for the new production: sunflowers spring from the field of gravel surrounding the stage in place of swords, and in the final act three red boxes, a beach umbrella, a lifeguard’s stand, and a stereotypical wave backdrop firmly indicate that the characters are at sea (literally, this time).
There is a similar continuity with the costumes by designer Vasilija Zivanic. The only novel costumes in the production belong to newcomers Alfred (played by Adam Kerbel in shapeless sweats, an abortive attempt to don a pink gown and high heels for his turn as an escort, and a off-brand mauve recreation of Gertrude’s power suit) and Hamlet (now played by Brian Ratcliffe, in a bezippered jacket of nighted black, hipster glasses, tall stripey socks, and embroidered Hugh Hefner house shoes). The rest are carried over from Hamlet. The First Player once again appears in a dark military uniform, and his troupe wear a variety of layers and colors caught in the rundown between hobo chic and actual hobo. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s coordinated outfits are their only glimpse of the world in black and white, rendered in a mix between Elizabethan and contemporary styles: black frock-like coats decorated with decidedly modern white prints over t-shirts; black breeches with white-striped soccer referee socks and ankle boots.
The only aspect where the production suffers from such a faithful translation is the character of Hamlet, with Ratcliffe stepping into the role left by Zainab Jah. Ratcliffe’s take on Hamlet as a self-absorbed schemer is both amusing and substantial enough to counterbalance the action of the play. But while it would of course be both impossible and inadvisable to attempt to exactly copy the performance of another actor, one wishes there were at least some continuity between the two actors’ portrayals of Hamlet. Ratcliffe’s is so different from Jah’s youthful and earnest performance that it should alter the entire central dynamic of the play-without-the-play, even accounting for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s unique perception of events. When Zizka has taken such pains to present the two productions in conversation with each other, this dramatic change with no obvious purpose is a jarring and confusing note.
However, Zizka’s integration of the two productions is otherwise overwhelmingly successful. Even some of the stylized elements that felt out of place in Hamlet prove to be a perfect fit in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The court of Elsinore’s ceremonial freeze-frames and Ophelia’s interpretive dance moves are now just one more unexplained detail in the whole series of unexplained details that make up the title characters’ experiences, and can be appreciated for their artistry without the frustration of searching for meaning that proves difficult to parse (for the audience, at least). Meanwhile, elements that already worked well in the first production work equally well in the second, like the duo’s unsettling introduction to Gertrude and Claudius: in Hamlet, the focus was on the contrast between the royal couple’s access to power (and its abuses, e.g. kidnapping Hamlet’s childhood friends so they can spy on him), their unprofessional behavior, and the alien social norms of Elsinore itself; in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these elements remain, but the absurd humor of the situation is allowed to flourish. Zizka maintains this sense of playfulness throughout the production (the pirate attack, which features Hamlet bravely fending off invaders in a Speedo and concludes with an unexpected visit from some sharks, is one notable example) and it proves an excellent foil to the almost aggressively deliberate pacing. The final result is both funny and moving without sacrificing any of its intellectualism.
Tom Stoppard appears to have an interesting relationship with such intertextuality. Despite writing one of the classic plays of transformative fiction, as Bang-Jensen points out he has also stated that "Playwrights try to move people, to tears or laughter. To sit in the theatre and mutter ’Ah Pirandello!’ –or ’Hm, Kafka...’ would be curious indeed" – as if the act of recognizing an allusion did not produce its own intellectual and emotional satisfaction. The constant flow of pop cultural references in modern entertainment is proof enough that audiences tolerate and even enjoy this type of storytelling; even Shakespeare gets his due, as proven by the gratification of those who watch The Lion King and recognize the plot of Hamlet (or the slightly confused, but no less appreciative souls who watch Hamlet and recognize the plot of The Lion King). The trick, as Stoppard is perhaps cautioning, is to ensure the allusions play some greater artistic role in the work other than the tautological joy of merely referencing their antecedents. This is the true strength of the Wilma’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: it is equally excellent on its own as it is in conversation with the Wilma’s Hamlet. The advantages of an upcycled cast and crew for this upcycled production are readily apparent in the quality of their performances as well as the cleverness of their allusions, which can be appreciated regardless of whether one experienced the production’s counterpart. Either way, the end product has a value all of its own.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, directed by Blanka Zizka, runs May 20 - June 20, 2015 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. For more information, please visit https://www.wilmatheater.org.