My director friend, Michael, always called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” a “three-headache play.” Part comical, part absurdist and always billed as a modern masterpiece, all I know is it’s a three-act combination mash-up romp of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” It also launched the career of author/playwright Tom Stoppard in the 1960s.
The title is taken directly from the final scene of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and the plot is inherently simple: the two minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are tasked with discovering childhood friend Hamlet’s vengeful intentions and then are charged by Claudius to escort the Danish prince to the king of England. Of course, there’s a letter to be delivered that states “kill Hamlet,” and the two become caught in an odd scheme that involves both pirates and a craftily switched letter. But the plot is confounded with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s memory lapses, Stoppard’s philosophical interjections on randomness and death, questioning interruptions, silence and confusingly verbal volleys and word games (it is Stoppard after all). The supporting players of “Hamlet,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are now the superstars. Hamlet has a minor part, mostly dashing in and out.
For assistance on just how to handle their confounding situation, the two turn to the Player, the leader of the Tragedian troupe that comes to entertain Hamlet and the court with its presentation of “The Murder of Gonzago.” The Player has a recognizable talent of stage experiences and Socrates to call up in his attempt to help.
Director Josh Sobel’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” is a fast-paced, energetic and well-executed production. Everyone gets to stride the boards on a very utilitarian and extremely clever set designed by Adam Liston; the lighting design by Chelsea Lynn is a visual pleasure of shades of blues, garnets and mauves illuminating that set.
And what a cast! (Thank you, resident casting director Robin Hughes.) The Tragedians (Madeline Bunke, Josh Carroll, Margaret Garofalo, Maddie Sachs and Peter Danger Wilde) mug, enact and prance delightfully upon the Player’s (a masterful, handsome basso fundo Christopher Walsh) command. Hamlet (the facile Ryan Duncan), Gertrude (Amy Gorelow), Claudius (Douglas Bryan Bean) and Polonius (George Manisco) make brief appearances with lifted dialogue provided by Shakespeare.
But it is clearly David Strobbe, as Rosencrantz, and Aurora Real De Asua, as Guildenstern, who both anchor and drive this production. Their exquisite rapport and skilled, flawless delivery of an amazing amount of complex lines is a commendable act of perceptive casting and direction. Going against traditional male casting, De Asua’s Guildenstern is a spitfire, a lean, angry thinker and a believer in stark reality. Strobbe’s Rosencrantz is a softer, at times bumbling, simple-minded character. Both actors are astoundingly good.
It is a little disconcerting about what lies ahead when the Metropolis’ executive director Joe Keefe precedes the show with an acknowledgment that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” is the most abstract and lengthier production than usually done at the Metropolis. Keefe also encourages the audience to read the playbill summary so you can understand and follow what goes on in the play. Perhaps Guildenstern sums it up best: “What a fine persecution to be kept intrigued without every quite being enlightened.” Nonetheless, this “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” is a superbly well-done production of a play that won four Tony Awards and is about to be remounted in a 50th anniversary celebration at the Old Vic in London. Do not fear this first-class production at the Metropolis.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.
“ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD”
WHEN: Through March 18
WHERE: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights
COST & INFO: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, become the stars in this comical absurdist delight, acclaimed as a modern masterpiece. Three acts, with two intermissions. Tickets: $38. Tickets and information: www.metropolisarts.com or 847-577-2121.