Counter Productions' staging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an ambitious choice for a fledgling theater company's sophomore effort—even one that premiered with Julius Caesar. Shakespeare's well-fleshed characters and meaty plotlines give a company plenty to sink its teeth into, whereas Stoppard's absurdist classic lacks action and is lean on character development. Pauses, silences, and long waits are difficult for even the most seasoned actors, who, after all, want to be acting.
Bearing that in mind, the cast performs adequately if not always admirably. Edwin Batch as Guildenstern and Brian McCarthy as Rosencrantz take awhile to warm up to the sprinting dialogue, but each eventually hits his stride. Batch tends toward a measured, even tone, which suits the more philosophical Guildenstern, but that steadiness perseveres even into the character's few, but crucial, emotional outbursts, and unfortunately undercuts the impact of those scenes. McCarthy's Rosencrantz is jittery and often panicked, which produces some of the show's funnier moments - when frightened at one point he literally clings to Guildenstern for dear life - but, again, the effect is to blunt the edges of his moments of actual distress. Both are at their best in the comedic scenes, and demonstrate a genuinely good rapport with occasional tenderness, but neither yet have the range to carry them into the play's darker depths.
Enter the Player, as portrayed by Anthony Dangerfield: a humble, down-on-his-luck huckster with a few tricks and maybe a shiv up his sleeve. Dangerfield stretches his lines out like elastic almost to the breaking point, and his eyes, which never quite meet anyone else's, convey his complete alienation. His performance suggests the bleak heart of existentialist drama more surely than that of his fellows. Director John Erik Strom makes a wise decision in letting Dangerfield deliver the play's final lines on bloody and unnatural acts.
The rest of the players in this troupe tend toward the zany, and their antics sometimes overwhelm the tiny stage to the detriment of the scene. Alfred (Gregory Glenn) stands out among them for his piteousness, but any sympathy he garners is worn out with the next round of slapstick.
The characters on loan from Shakespeare, while always on the periphery of the play's action (or lack thereof), are even further marginalized in this production, with only a few, fractured phrases between them. Christina Kingsbury is an unusually smug and self-assured Hamlet, while Alison Meirowitz and John Erik Strom make a fleeting impression as Gertrude and Claudius. Jacob Shribman's Polonius gets in a deadpan jab or two. The rest, as they say, are more or less silent.
With so little focus on the Shakespearean, and so much emphasis on, and success with, the lighter notes of the play, this production is in danger of veering away from the tragicomic into the realm of farce. The dread and desperation inherent in the work shine through but weakly. This is especially problematic in the final act; of all the death scenes therein, only the Player's fake out elicits any real feeling. It's tempting to consider a failure to create meaning a success in a genre that's all about the absence of meaning, but when the mood is one of silliness rather than emptiness, that success is ultimately hollow.
Although the costumes and set, along with the tinny jazz played before the show and during the intermissions suggest a '20s, or perhaps Depression Era feel, it isn't very clear what exactly the vague temporal gesture is meant to evoke. Ted Clement's costume design visually divides the cast by class, with formal dress (albeit inconsistently applied: Claudius and Polonius sport business suits, Hamlet a tux and Gertrude and Ophelia evening gowns) for the Elsinor set; and hobo chic for the players (with a slightly more dapper Player King), who don threadbare gowns and paper crowns and pass around a pair of Groucho glasses for "performances." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appropriately fit into neither category in clashing striped and plaid blazers (respectively), short pants, knee-high argyle socks and corduroy newsboy caps. These two might, however, have been better served by less unique garb, which marks them with more individuality than the play suggests.
The Factory Theater is very small, with a floor stage and a very small box of a proscenium situated behind the stage. Jess Schneider's set design for this show consists of a variety of sepia-toned photographs and advertisements pasted to the brick walls and curling up at the edges. A few seemingly random props—so random that I didn't realize they were intentional until they were removed at the "scene change" between the second and third acts—clutter the area, along with several bare blocks and stairs to assist with the action. The sound and light cues are few and far between, and thus have the effect of distracting from the scenes they're meant to support.
It is clear that overall this company would benefit from a stronger and more cohesive aesthetic vision, but their willingness to attempt a difficult piece of work speaks well of their artistic ambition. They succeed here at fast-paced dialogue and intellectual humor, but they'll have to learn how to effectively switch gears if they want to actually move an audience.
Counter Productions Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, directed by John Erik Strom, is playing at The Factory Theatre at the Piano Factory in Boston MA. For more information, visit http://home.comcast.net/~counterproductionstheatre .