It can be hard to keep the 52-year-old “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” from feeling a bit…dated. Once boundary-pushing, the play’s self-awareness is par for the course for a 2018 audience accustomed to programming that frequently leans on the fourth wall even when not breaking it entirely. As such, the meta analysis the characters provide packs less of a punch. Breaking the fourth wall is no longer enough to carry a play and the emphasis on the cleverness of metatheater can now be more grating than innovative. In other words, a successful production of Tom Stoppard’s play needs to find meaning in the play that goes beyond the characters realizing they are characters.
Fortunately, Upstage’s recent production, directed by Brigitte Demelo ’18, goes beyond the script, making the most of a talented cast with great chemistry. Lara Brennan ’18 portrays Guildenstern, playing beautifully off an interpretation of Rosencrantz by Rainier Pearl-Styles ’19. Pearl-Styles has played clowns before, most recently in the November production of “King Lear” for the Shakespeare Society, and that experience shows. Her Rosencrantz is a captivating clown with a convincingly wide-eyed innocence.
The character and performance are a perfect foil for Brennan’s Guildenstern, whose existential ramblings feel all too relevant for a college student. Guildenstern does not know who he is, where he came from or where he’s going; unlike Rosencrantz, he is unable to ignore this or feel optimistic. His metaphysical musings to the audience and frustration with what he sees as inability to do anything are compelling, as are his addressments of his growing fears and concerns about his place in the universe. While Brennan’s Guildenstern is sometimes angsty to the point of melodrama, the feelings he has are always relatable.
What makes the chemistry between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really pop, however, is the convincing portrayal of their love for each other. More than just a compelling comedic duo, the two are believably great friends. This production does not play up a queer reading of their relationship, which, in this critic’s opinion, is fine. When Rosencrantz tries to cheer Guildenstern up by rigging a game of chance to let him win, the theater went silent; it was a quiet moment of kindness in the face of an unforgiving universe. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be dead, but while they lived, they cared for each other more than anything else.
A few members of the supporting cast stood out in particular. Isaac Zerkle ‘18’s Player was nothing short of masterful. He commanded the stage entirely, at times funny, tragic and melodramatic, evoking a sort of washed-up Shakespeare in a way. And Hannah Michaud ’21 was a perfectly hammy Hamlet, histrionic and brooding to the point of hilarity. Her moaning and raving from one side of the minimal set to the other was as humorous as it was convincing.
The rest of the supporting cast of tragi-comedians had their moments, but unfortunately, nearly every funny aside came with at least a moment or two of awkward, stilted staging. Sometimes this awkwardness was a part of the comedy, but there were a few moments where it came across as an unnecessary fault.
The set is deliberately minimal, evocative of plays like Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Both the stage and the backdrop were intriguingly set at angles, making everything feel that much more unstable. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s coins rolled down the dramatic slopes as they tried to find comfortable positions on the tilted set. It almost gave the effect of being on a boat rocking back and forth on in the waves, which came in handy for the scenes set on a ship. The stage design was simple and evocative, not needing to be anything more than what it was. The lighting took a similar route, barely noticeable except when the actions of “Hamlet” take place or when the lights come up dramatically on Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and the others. Simple touches like this made an enormous difference.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” will still never be this reviewer’s favorite play, but Upstage’s production was highly commendable, making a script that has gone stale in several regards into a worthwhile theater-going experience. While there are a few awkward staging moments with some of the supporting cast, and the show could not totally avoid being dragged down by the weight of the script’s obsession with it’s own cleverness, it was, on the whole, a funny and emotionally compelling show, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it.