“Two intermissions! There are two intermissions!” announced Jeremy W. Blocker ’04 as he passed through the Loeb Mainstage audience on Friday night. I had to chuckle when I heard his reminder; I’ve been to more than one Mainstage which couldn’t hold its audience through one intermission, let alone two. But Friday night’s audience was happy to sit through all three acts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, director Blocker’s rollicking production of Tom Stoppard’s spin on Hamlet. I haven’t seen many Mainstages at Harvard that have been worth recommending, but I’m pleased to recommend this one.
In a way, the show succeeds not because of what it does, but because of what it doesn’t do. Unlike a lot of misbegotten Mainstages, it has been neither overthought nor hastily wrought. Blocker has given us a refreshingly safe interpretation of Stoppard’s play, has cast it with uniformly talented actors, and hasn’t tried to pass off a mass of steel scaffolding as a set. If the show wasn’t a little on the long side, I wouldn’t recognize it as a Mainstage at all.
Stoppard’s heroes are the doomed, thick-headed duo of the play’s title. Though they are only minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Stoppard allows Rosencrantz (Bobby A. Hodgson ’05) and Guildenstern (Geordie F. Broadwater ’04) to show the events in and around the play from their own shared perspective. They’re hard to tell apart; you could say that Guildenstern is the smart one, but that wouldn’t be saying much. They’re both incredibly dense, easily confused, and utterly incapable of coping with life—yet, regardless, they spend the play trying to make sense of their reality.
It’s hilarious to watch the two men impotently muddle around with their pea-sized brains; it’s Abbott and Costello Meet Hamlet, except that neither man has any idea who’s on first. Broadwater’s Guildenstern is earnest and restless, always yammering questions and never getting answers. Hodgson’s Rosencrantz is a layabout twit, his perpetually gaping mouth suggesting a severely inbred bloodline. It is Stoppard’s genius to make these idiots the carriers of a profound existential dread; in Stoppard’s hands, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become philosopher-fools, capable of giving us both joy and horror in a single sitting.
And Blocker lets Stoppard’s vision pass to the audience unhindered. The absurdist set, by Julian M. Rose ’06, suggests a medieval production of “Laugh-In,” full of portals that slide open and swing shut, and staircases that zigzag to nowhere. It’s an illogical set to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and certainly to the audience, yet the play’s other characters navigate it with ease. It’s both funny and uncanny; in other words, it’s ideally suited to the play. No less praiseworthy is the sound design by John T. Drake ’06, which is glutted with good musical cues; sensitive lighting work by Kelzie E. Beebe ’04; and Nori Pritchard’s array of court outfits.
The cast, outside of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and their foil, a player (Mike B. Hoagland ’07), is more or less restricted to prop status; none of them talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for long enough to make an impression. Yet all of the actors give the sense that there are unspoken depths to their characters—a crucial skill, considering that their characters have far more space to themselves in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius (Tim M. Marrinan ’06) is suitably obsequious, Ophelia (Andrea M. Spillmann ’07) is weepy when weepiness is called for, and a moody Hamlet (Jeremy R. Funke ’04-’05) stands around muttering soliloquies too quietly for our heroes to hear.
Hoagland more than holds his own, doing limber and sonorous work, but the show really belongs to Broadwater and Hodgson. They’re always on stage, ceaselessly searching for life’s secrets even though they wouldn’t recognize a secret if it bit them in the codpiece. And both actors telegraph their dumb anxiety with skill: their practiced spontaneity doesn’t seem practiced in the least—every laugh line feels unforced, each note of despair feels natural.
There’s an ephemeral quality to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It treats you to a lot of interesting philosophizing and wordplay, and it’s a lot of fun to watch, but I don’t remember a lick of the dialogue a day later. Instead, I remember Broadwater’s hapless sincerity, Hodgson’s idiot scowl, my laughter-strained stomach, and the show’s deeply affecting sense of existential loneliness. That’s a package worth sitting through two intermissions for.
-—Crimson arts reviewer Benjamin J. Soskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.