When tackling a play such as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", as is currently being tackled by Seattle Public Theater, you need to make sure you have two powerhouse actors in the titular roles, especially when putting in the twist of casting women rather than the traditional men in the roles. Check! Mission accomplished there. And as amazing as these women are, I have to say the production could have used a little more variation in pace as it rarely wavered from the breakneck speed with which it began.
One of Tom Stoppard's most recognizable and accessible plays; "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" follows two minor characters from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and gives us a glimpse into what these two witless pawns in this much larger Royal game have to think about their place in life and what's happening to them. Like most of Stoppard's plays it's a good idea to have a familiarity of his chosen subject matter (in this case "Hamlet") to get all the jokes but like I said, this is one of his most accessible so as long as you understand who they are, you'll be fine. So let me help you out. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two school chums of Hamlet that the Queen and the new King task with trying to get Hamlet out of his funk. When this fails, they are ordered to take Prince Hamlet to England with a letter. Unbeknownst to them the letter calls for the King of England to execute Prince Hamlet on the spot. Hamlet discovers the letter and switches it for another one which calls for the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead and he flees back to Denmark for the rest of his own play. There, you should be good now.
Now, casting women in the lead roles could be a risky venture especially where there is no seeming reason for the change other than to let the girls get a shot at this amazingly rich dialogue. And sometimes that a good enough reason. As our hapless travelers, Angela DiMarco as Rosencrantz and Alyssa Keene as Guildenstern take on these meaty roles with skill and glee. DiMarco's clever yet simplistic naiveté is perfectly balanced by Keene's confidence. And the two women handle these roles in such a way that you never once question why the cast twist. OK, well maybe once. And while they handle Stoppard's iconic banter with hilarious lightning speed, I found myself wishing for more levels in the pace. It's fine to crank up the pace to 11 but occasionally it needs to come down again or the show lacks depth. Director Shana Bestock manages the chaos and clever word play on stage well but I felt could have done more with the quieter moments. And this lack of contrast carried over to Heather Hawkins who's along for the ride as The Player. She and her crazy band of actors were fun to watch but seemed a little one note.
Jennifer Zeyl's wonderful playground of a set, Andrew D. Smith's thrilling lighting and Matt Staritt's almost haunting sound design only added to the rich tapestry of the show. This is definitely my favorite of Stoppard's plays with its rich, candy-like script and hilarious take on these two whipping boys (or girls) who may not have deserved what Shakespeare did to them. And while I love the performances of these two extremely talented women and their Laurel and Hardy-esque characterizations, I felt more could have been done with the production to make it a complete package.
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" performs at Seattle Public Theater through February 19th. For tickets or information contact the SPT box office at 206-524-1300 or visit them online at www.seattlepublictheater.org.
Photo credit: Paul Bestock