By: Tom Stoppard
Directed by: Bruce McLeod
Featuring: Warren Wernick and Jacob Marker
When: November 1 through 18, 2012
Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
Tickets: $10-$18; visit www.foothill.edu/theatre or call650-949-7360
Parking: $3 in parking lot 8
Read a profile of director Bruce McLeod.
See a video interview of Bruce McLeod, Warren Wernick and Jacob Marker at Peninsula Backstage.
'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'
As we're waiting for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" to begin, a chuckle runs through the audience. Evidently, someone down in the front row is cracking wise about the set, and how long it's taking for the show to start.
Eventually, we all tune in to overhear what is being said by the pair of wisenheimers.
Then, as the lights dim on all but this couple, it finally dawns on us: Ah! Those two young men are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, spectators in their own play. They exchange a few more witticisms, and then one follows the other up onto the stage, continuing their rapid-fire exchange of non sequiturs and half-sentences.
Just as we realize that these two talkative observers are, in fact, the subject of the evening's entertainment, some other pieces start to click into the place. That grungy young veteran, mumbling to himself in a wheelchair in the lobby. The elderly lady pushing a shopping cart full of recycling outside the theater. The two young girls earnestly selling hand-woven bracelets on a blanket spread near the box office. Bay Area theater patrons, accustomed to such sights, looked away. But as the play begins, we notice they have joined us in the theater -- they are all part of the production.
It is a brilliant start to what goes on to be a fascinating and rewarding treatment of Tom Stoppard's fabulously inventive tale. Director Bruce McLeod has set the action in a scruffy underground train station, cleverly festooned with colorful graffiti and "Hamlet" posters decorating the back transit wall in a cheeky reference to this play within a play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" who appear on-stage only briefly, and whose ultimate fate is announced at the end, in the single line that gives Stoppard's play its title. This was the first produced play by Tony and Academy Award winner Stoppard, who went on to write plays such as "Travesties," "The Real Thing" and "Arcadia," winning four Tony Awards, as well as an Academy Award, for "Shakespeare In Love."
McLeod has placed the production today, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played with alacrity and enormous wit by Warren Wernick and Jacob Marker) as hapless wanderers waiting, Godot-like, in a train station, subject to vagrants, while the 1 percent (the Court of Elsinore) wander through in Chanel suits, chatting on cellphones. This re-casting of the drama makes what was already a timeless work even more immediate and accessible for modern audiences.
The play begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern passing the time by flipping one coin after another in an improbable game (Heads wins 97 times in a row. Absurd? Now you're catching on). They try to remember why they are there, or even where they are, from whence they came, and where they are heading.
As they ponder their situation, vaguely recalling a man, a summons, an urgent call to appear at court, a rag-tag band of street performers stumble across their path, led by The Player (veteran actor John Musgrave, showing a world-weary gravitas tempered with a glimmer of wicked glee). He urges them to sponsor a performance, a viewing, or even something vaguely salacious and/or participatory, "times being what they are." Alas, no deal is made, and the players (Mikey Weiland, Erin Southard, Lydia Tuan, Madeleine Noriega and Zalette Gomes as poor, abused "Alfred") straggle off.
Next comes Gertrude flouncing through the station (a vibrant Katie Ruppeert, in a pink suit, sucking a martini) nuzzling her boy-toy husband Claudius (played with cocky good cheer by Jeremy Ryan), tailed by their "court" -- men-in-black secret service, compete with shades and ear buds (Nick Mandracchia and Julia Rotakhina), and their faithful retainer Polonius (Joshua Messick), who is busy consulting his cellphone. In stalks Gertrude's sulky son, Hamlet, played by Tyler Della in a snarky, petulant turn delivered in full emo, complete with dripping eyeliner and black leather pants, with a love-sick Ophelia (Chloe Aknin) stalking behind. When Gertrude can drag herself away from her young stud, she pauses long enough to beseech Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to distract her son from his puzzling melancholia.
Left alone again on the fringes of the action, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern heed their inner call to inaction. Fortunately, The Player and his band have reappeared and are willing to put on a show for Hamlet's benefit, after giving R&G a lesson in the many faces of death - or, at least, how death appears to actors, who know how to mine it for all it's worth. They wander off to rehearse, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left, again, to consider fate, life, the nature of existence, and other deep thoughts, all handled with an irresistible quirky charm.
Warren Wernick is particularly watchable in a tour-de-force turn as the puzzled Rosencrantz, who can't fathom why they have landed in this soup, a charming Ollie to Jacob Marker's more pragmatic Laurel, whose kettle is set to a slow simmer.
In the second act, McLeod cunningly shifts the action to a rattling railway car, where R&G are spiriting Hamlet away to England, per orders from his royal family. The Players appear once again, this time as stowaways, popping up through the seats in a fabulous coup de théâtre. Moments later, the entire train is overtaken by pirates - or, in this case, by the Occupy movement -- racing in on shopping carts and broken bikes, brandishing umbrellas and other bits of weaponry in one of the most hilarious slow-motion fights ever staged. Just as suddenly as it has begun, the occupiers race off, the "battle won," Hamlet spirited away. The railcar melts apart and we are back in the original station. But where are R&G? I won't tell you where they peep out from this time, but it is priceless.
A short third act finds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again suspended in limbo, wondering if the way is forward towards death, or ... there doesn't seem to be an "or," at which point Marker's simmer finally comes to a boil. Here Musgrove gives a deeply touching speech on the nature of death, and McLeod again adds a deft directorial touch, as the rag-tag troupe assume the positions of tragic throes of death, only to creep away and be replaced by the dead members of the court from the Hamlet finale. McLeod gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern powerful final moments, bringing them up the theater aisles and suspending them in light, their last words floating in air.
McLeod's background as both a lighting designer and set designer are brought to bear in this masterful production, employing every resource to fine effect, to heighten and expand the text. Credit should also be given to Carol Clever for her spot-on costume designs, Mikey Weiland for original music compositions, Carlos Aceves, credited with co-designing the set with McLeod, Brendan Kierans for lighting design, and Matt Vandercook for sound design. And a special shout-out to David Madwin for brilliant fight choreography.