Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which recently closed St. Ambrose University’s 2004-5 theatre season, is a tough play to produce effectively at the collegiate level: How do you present Tom Stoppard’s mordantly funny rumination on mortality and the meaninglessness of existence with performers this young?
Director Daniel D. P. Sheridan wasn’t quite able to lick this problem, yet what this Rosencrantz lacked in philosophical and psychological complexity was made up for in ambition, directorial finesse, and a surprising amount of big laughs; Sheridan’s production might have taken most of the “tragi” out of Stoppard’s tragicomedy, but it managed the significant feat of making the playwright’s martini-dry, oh-so-British wit audience-friendly, and showcased the work of several engaging performers.
Opening on a sparsely furnished stage accentuated by a large white drop and a pair of staircases leading, appropriately enough, nowhere, this production began shakily, with the first of many verbal duels between Hamlet allies Rosencrantz (Jeremy Pack) and Guildenstern (Andrew Harvey). For the first 15 minutes or so of Saturday’s performance, I worried that St. Ambrose sophomores Pack and Harvey wouldn’t be up to the challenge of their roles; with modern-era line deliveries and a down-home folksiness replacing the clipped, cutting badinage you expect from Stoppard, the meaning behind the author’s lines was often lost, and I had the vague sense that this would be Rosencrantz & Guildenstern as enacted by Merry and Pippin.
Yet with the arrival of the traditionally show-stopping tragedians – featuring the first-rate Rusty K. Koll (a memorable Bernard in St. Ambrose’s powerhouse staging of Death of a Salesman last fall) as The Player and the hilarious scene-stealer Sean Tweedale as the ever-put-upon Alfred – the show gained considerable momentum; Sheridan, who made inspired use of his stage space throughout, did perhaps his finest work with the handling of these gloriously rude characters (the staging of the troupe’s notorious dumb show, with Claudius murdering the king and marrying the queen, was the production’s highlight), and the tragedians, in a delightful misnomer, emerged as exemplars of high comedy.
After their departure, Pack and Harvey relaxed considerably, and I liked them as a comic duo more and more as the show progressed; much of Rosencrantz features routines the audience is truly alive to – the fiendishly clever game of Questions, Rosencrantz’s monologue about whether it’s better to be dead or alive when trapped in a coffin – and I could feel both actors’ relief when performing their more overtly funny moments.
By the evening’s end, both Pack and Harvey appeared properly invested in their material, as, it must be added, was the audience; who thought a tony meditation on Art and Life could be this much fun? Graced by Christel Williams’ and Corinne Johnson’s eye-catching costumes and Sam Michael’s lighting design – the indeterminate hues were perfect for a tale occurring either at dusk or at the dawn of a particularly terrible day – this Rosencrantz & Guildenstern would certainly have benefited from greater depth, but an enjoyable philosophical exercise is nothing to sniff at, and I’m awaiting St. Ambrose’s 2005-6 season already.