Anyone who’s read Hamlet is probably familiar with the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends who are solicited by the King and Queen of Denmark to draw the young prince out of his depressed, possibly mad, state of mind. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead elaborates on the offstage antics of these characters. What were they doing before they were summoned? Why do they seem so utterly confused about their purpose? Stoppard’s play, in the Absurdist style, is delightfully comical, but also deals with some of life’s most persistent questions. And when, as indicated by the title, the characters die at the end, the audience is left in deep reflection on the brevity of human life and the confusing world in which we live. Stoppard intertwines Shakespeare’s text into his own, creating a story that’s fun for those familiar with Hamlet to follow.
Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s production was my first experience seeing the play on stage, and their unique concept of staging immediately grabs hold of the audience. One of The company’s founding members, Kathleen Golde, is a renowned aerialist, so the production focuses heavily on aerial tricks and illusions. Director Paula Westinghouse’s directorial contribution to the project is evident in the informed decisions of her cast, especially in a difficult style like the Beckett-esque Rosencrants and Guildenstern Are Dead. The theatre’s beautiful auditorium space on the campus of Hilbert College in Hamburg was grossly under populated, and one couldn’t help but feel bad for the performers who poured their heart out onstage in the aesthetically pleasing production of this classic.
The first thing that can be noticed is the ensemble mentality of this particular cast. The function of the tragedians is hugely important to the effectiveness of the play as a whole, and this production’s tragedians are stellar, each serving their own function with an efficacy representative of well-trained actor. Golde serves as a member of the ensemble, as well as Marie Costa, Kay Kerimian, Anne Roaldi, Genevieve Lerner, Anne Kurtis, and Joe Liolos. Live music was also provided by some Members of The richly talented ensemble, and supervised by Kerimian. This motley crew’s leader, portrayed in Buffalo Lab’s production by the exquisite Katie White, is a confident actor called The Player who laments the days when their art was in demand, and constantly looks for a chance to perform. White is accurate in presenting the Player’s unpredictable nature, but the most effective piece of her performance comes when she is in the act of “performing” as the Player. White settles into a comedic rhythm with the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, represented by Taylor Doherty and Ray Boucher, respectively. The play is driven from philosophical moment to philosophical moment by Stoppard’s witty and multi-faceted humor, and White is no stranger to timing. Equally impressive in the part of Hamlet, the tormented Prince of Denmark is Jonathan Shuey. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is less of a principal character, and much more mysterious. Instead of being the protagonist, his motivations are never clearly understood by Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, and therefore never clearly understood by the audience. Shuey embodies that mystery, and we see his inner conflict when he is forced to switch the letter commanding his murder upon reaching England with one sentencing the titular characters to their imminent death.
In the extremely difficult roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Doherty and Boucher are both equal parts charming and conflicted. Doherty doesn’t simply “play” Rosencrantz’s slightly dim nature; rather, he portrays a clearly flawed human being who, in reality, is probably the most intelligent of all the characters in the play. His somewhat well-known reflection on death is so entirely lighthearted that the dark comedy Stoppard intends is better realized by the audience. In the role of the more short-tempered Guildenstern, Boucher is spot on. His anguish at not remembering visibly pains him. The lighthearted banter of the characters is eliminated upon the realization of their death sentence, and culminates in a heart-wrenching scene where they die. This production’s concept is incredibly effective in showing this death scene. Doherty and Boucher step behind the riggings for the aerial stunts, and a spotlight goes out on them. The effect is a painfully beautiful tribute to the futility of their struggle throughout the play, but is somehow oddly hopeful.