“To be or not to…” have any control over not being? That is the question posed by the comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, at Jobsite’s Theater at the Straz through Oct. 8. Although Tom Stoppard’s comedy is the smiling face of the twin mask, based on the tragedy of Hamlet, don’t expect any deep belly laughs until later into the three-act play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
The beginning of the play was slow and tedious as Rosencrantz, (Kathernie Yacko) and Guildenstern,(Nicole Jeannine Smith) embarked on a lengthy scene flipping coins — in which every coin comes up heads.
The game went on far too long for most of the audience. But the genius of the actors’ delivery was the take away from this introduction. It belabored the point that yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead and a big part of being in the afterlife is boredom, laced with bouts of forgetfulness.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the original story from which this play spins off of. In contrast with Hamlet, two women played the roles of these two friends. Given that Shakespeare delighted in transposing gender roles, he’d be delighted with this casting.
Interspersed with the coin-flipping game were lengthy explanations of the implausibility of the laws of each coin toss coming up heads. The rhetoric of probabilities might have been enough to put a Shakespearean groundling to sleep, but it was a vital substance to keep the educated playgoer intellectually challenged.
Smith’s focused and articulate delivery of Guildenstern’s suppositions made the arguments easy to follow while Yacko’s childlike delight at winning the coin toss every time kept the levity going. Yacko set the stage for comedic relief that continued throughout the play.
Based on Hamlet
At the end of this long exposition, the drama unfolded through short scenes from Hamlet where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appeared. This reminded the audience how these events led to the pair’s demise. Between scenes, the two provided commentary and debate. They questioned whether anything in that particular interaction could have changed to steer the chain of events in a different direction or, moreover, change the outcome.
And if it’s love of Hamlet that brought people to the show, it did not disappoint them from this point on, where flashbacks of Hamlet began and the play gained momentum. While somewhat lost in the woods, trying to find their way to Elsinore Castle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hear music and stumble upon a troupe of players and their leader, commandingly played by Jack Holloway.
Holloway’s booming voice and stage presence captivated the audience every time he appeared. He offers to perform a play in the woods for a fee and suggests Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can both participate with Alfred, the designated female in the troupe. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are repulsed by him, but later Guildenstern tells the Lead Player he can probably get them a job at the castle. From there, the action moves to the castle, presenting scenes from Hamlet — featuring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the plot to bring down Hamlet.
Murder or Comedy?
Scenes included the reenactment of Claudius’ request that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find out what is bothering Hamlet. Then, Hamlet greets his old friends; the players performing The Murder of Gonsago to root out Claudius’ deed against his brother; searching for Hamlet after he mistakenly murders Polonius; and up to the Claudius’ proclamation that the pair should accompany Hamlet aboard ship to England.
Each Hamlet flashback comes before a scene between the pair, discussing what they could have done differently to change their eventual death; debates on the inevitability of birth and death; and the pondering of free will versus fate, with many points of argument being sometimes logical, sometimes absurd.
Finally, the scene changes to the ship where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will lead Hamlet to what should be his execution, but instead, becomes theirs. Hamlet outwitted them and switched the letter from the King with one of his own writing, ordering the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.