Huntington Theatre Brings Back ‘Hamlet’ with a Twist in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’

Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead HTC 9-19 014 Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, directed by Peter DuBois Huntington Theatre Company 9/19/19 Scenic Design: Wilson Chin Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi Lighting Design: David Laanderl Original Music & Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves Projection Design: Zachary Borovay Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography [email protected]

The Huntington Theatre is bringing Shakespeare’s Hamlet back, but this time with new title characters. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead brings the duo to the front and center of Shakespeare’s original play and tosses Hamlet to the side. But with little chemistry between actors and dropped jokes, Huntington Theatre’s rendition of Stoppard’s original play falls flat. Shakespeare would be disappointed. 

Originally performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966, the play opens with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Or is it Guildenstern and Rosencrantz? It doesn’t matter, the two can’t even tell who is whom themselves.) dropped right in the middle of a prop-less stage, spotlights shining only on them. The two are betting on coin flips and, mysteriously, heads is the winner for all 92 tosses. The bit goes on for far too long and isn’t exactly an attention-grabbing opening—setting the stage for the general tone for the rest of the play. 

Eventually, the duo—Rosencrantz played by Alex Hurt and Guildenstern by Jeremy Webb—finds that they have arrived, displaced and confused on stage, because the King has sent for them, pulling them directly into the plot of Hamlet. The two are then tasked with “diagnosing” Hamlet’s mental malady following the marriage of his uncle and his mother. But, unlike in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not even know who Hamlet is, much less are they good friends of his. 

Throughout the play, they comically avoid calling each other by their names, or they mix them up. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are referred—both by themselves, each other, and supporting characters—as either name, making it difficult for the audience to distinguish who is whom—one of the very few successful comedic bits in the show. 

The Huntington Theatre Company’s rendition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead does well in playing off the two’s confusion in how they arrived smackdab in the center of Hamlet’s world. The stage is set up so it seems like the audience is in the wings of a rendition of Hamlet, with the fake stage lights and noises of a clapping “audience” coming from upstage. In one scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear upstage facing away from the live audience and sounds of a laughing crowd play as if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are stuck as characters in a play they do not know about, starring a Hamlet they have never met. 

In another scene, Ophelia—played by Meghan Leathers—walks onto the stage, visibly mimics an actor’s warm-up exercises, performs a scene for the false audience, and walks off out of character. The players did an excellent job in making it seem like Hamlet, played by Brian Lee Huynh, was the only character who didn’t know that he was in a play.

With tastefully tacky costumes and a lighting arrangement that nailed the idea that the audience was watching a performance of a play played for an audience downstage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead succeeded. Hurt and Webb worked together beautifully to master the kitschy and cute dynamic between the two title characters. But, the chemistry between the rest of the characters lacked the same substance.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship to the Player (Will LeBow) came up short. Unable to tell if the pair was supposed to genuinely despise The Player or only playfully dislike him, it made the dynamic between the duo and the rest of The Player’s cast of characters—a group of actors known as the Tragedians—confusing and lackluster. The Tragedians, a group of traveling actors with the Player at the helm, weren’t as funny as they were supposed to be. With an actor disguised as a horse for most of the play (whinnying so much it was really just annoying), the comedic strategy wasn’t as much witty as it seemed like the Tragedians were a cheap gag.

The play did what it had to and made it somewhat enjoyable, but the delivery of what were supposed to be comedic lines wasn’t, well, funny. The many sexual innuendos procured forced laughter and relationships between characters left something to be desired. 

Yes, Huntington Theatre’s rendition of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead had the potential to be the existential comedy that it was meant to be. The original idea, which dates back to the ’60s, to place Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the front of a play on Hamlet is ingenious, and the show had a 420-performance Broadway run and won four Tony awards. But, the Huntington Theatre company did little to live up to Stoppard’s legacy, making this performance both disappointing and unamusing. Maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should stay in the wings next time. 

Featured Image Courtesy of Huntington Theatre