When an actor exits the stage during a play, he might head back to his dressing room for a costume change, or step outside for a smoke by the stage door. Maybe he’ll study his lines for the next scene, read the paper, or exchange jokes with members of the backstage crew until it’s time to re-enter.
But what happens when a character exits a scene? Where does he go? What does he do until he reappears…if he reappears? As Hamlet would say, “That is the question” wrestled around by playwright Tom Stoppard in his clever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which we’re invited to pass the between-scenes “down time” with these two minor characters from Hamlet. And what do they do while the story progresses without them? They wait. They muse. They invent games and diversions. They grapple with the philosophical meanings of their circumstances. They wonder what they’re supposed to be doing, and they wait for someone “good” to enter—anyone who can give them a clue about why they’re there. At the moment, they’re not even sure which of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. (We know, of course, but only because it’s indicated in the program.) It’s an existential comedy, but don’t be scared off by that description. Unlike those snooty intellectual exercises that make your brain hurt, this play is odd, funny, quirky and accessible.
To open their fourth season, the young Porters of Hellsgate have concocted a clever notion. They’ve decided to run the play in repertory with its source, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Even more cleverly, they’ve cast the two productions with the same actors in their same roles. In other words, the actress you’ll see as Ophelia in their Hamlet (Taylor Fisher) also plays Ophelia in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…. And, building on this plan’s resemblance to an Escher painting, the actor who plays Hamlet directs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…, and the actor who plays Rosencrantz directs Hamlet. The plan is not only clever from an artistic standpoint, but also in terms of marketing: Having seen one, it may be hard to resist seeing the other.
But to the production at hand…
This play isn’t an easy one to present, particularly for those who assail the title roles. They never leave stage, and must do battle with lots of words, words, words. Their banter is not only quick; it’s complex as well. They rattle off lists of possibilities, play “hot potato” with concepts and compete in repeating rounds of linguistic swordplay, parrying and thrusting again and again in an endless Elizabethan “Who’s on First?” Here, Thomas Bigley (Rosencrantz) and Gus Krieger (Guildenstern) don’t merely face these challenges; they roll up their sleeves and bloody well wade right into the thicket. And they’re a good team, these two. The very different rhythms of their characterizations offset and compliment each other like oil and vinegar: Krieger’s staccato, obsessed machinations buzzing around Bigley’s dimmer more legato, worried musings as both try to solve their maddening puzzle.
Krieger, with dazzling dexterity, wraps his mouth and his brain around words and ideas at a pace that challenges the audience to keep up. His frustrated Guildenstern is intensely determined to find some harbor of sanity in an abyss. Bigley, in a satisfyingly unmannered performance, offers a Rosencrantz who is perhaps a simpler man, more accepting of fate… if he could just figure it all out. He matches his partner’s appetite for pondering and analyzing, meeting him at every turn, while serving as his constant foil.
Periodically, the play intersects with its counterpart as characters from Hamlet enter and exit, offering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern brief hope of clarity (as well as some familiar Shakespearean dialogue). While other productions play the Hamlet scenes with complete dramatic commitment, director Charles Pasternak stages them for broad comedy—a tactic that detracts from the inherent, more subtle comedy of the play. It’s like putting a hat on top of a hat. Jack Leahy’s Claudius is a big goofy oaf whose entrances are heralded by a recorded “Hail to the Chief.” Maja Miletich’s Gertrude squeezes our lads’ faces into her breasts like a bimbo in a Benny Hill sketch, and Pasternak himself, always great on stage, plays Hamlet like a character on SNL. Still, these scenes are brief, and they do make us laugh. Meanwhile, Jamey Hecht’s subtle, confounded Polonius hits the perfect note.
As the First Player, Micah Cover is perhaps less theatrical than one might expect for the leader of a theatrical troupe, but his honest, relaxed, wonderfully dry performance shows mastery, particularly in his excellently rendered monologue about an actor’s need to be watched. This transcendent moment is one of the highlights of the evening. His troupe of players, however, lacks presence and purpose, as if not being the main focus releases them from onstage obligations. Particularly in a play about minor characters, each minor character ought to have an unspoken story or need—one interesting enough to make us wonder about their offstage lives.
Resident costumer Jessica Pasternak shows her usual creativity within the company’s presumably small budget, constructing doublets out of men’s suit jackets with arms removed and lapels flipped up into collars, then combining them with ruffled shirts. Some characters are in pseudo-Elizabethan garb; others wear modern shoes and slacks. The resulting intermingling of styles doesn’t always work (one character wears what appears to be shiny jogging pants with a crazy pattern), and the clothes don’t always fit or flatter. But the artistry is evident.
Thomas Bigley’s set design is classic black box, with smartly arranged platforms, a bit of purple bunting, a few chairs, visible lights and movable boxes. Sparse as it is, it works well for a play that takes place in a sort of offstage purgatory.
The production would benefit from musical interludes during its blackouts, as the silences squander its momentum, and feel as though something has gone wrong. Also questionable is the inconsistency of dialect (some performers speak with English accents, some do not). Even Krieger and Bigley are misaligned in these choices. These areas suggest less-than-detailed direction. Still, it's an entertaining evening with some talented folks.
It’s been said before, but bears repeating: It’s hard not to be a fan of the Porters of Hellsgate. Founded by three high school friends with a shared love of Shakespeare, the company is young, dedicated, enthusiastic and deserving of support. And they’re bringing Shakespeare to a new generation of fans. They may not be a seasoned company, but they are top-notch amateurs (which, in this case, is not intended as a derogatory description in the least). In years to come, their inspiring commitment to their work will surely cause them to grow and evolve into a solid, established and highly regarded troupe. Go see them now, while you can still get a ticket.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead runs in repertory with Hamlet January 7 -February 14, 2010 at The Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood, CA 90038. Information can be found at http://www.myspace.com/theportersofhellsgate.