|L-R: Miranda Jean Larson and Jocelyn Vammer in ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Photo by Al Foote III.|
Tom Stoppard, arguably the greatest living English language playwright, achieved his first major success in 1966 when Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (before moving on to Broadway a year later in a Royal National Theatre production that won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as an award for Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968 and an award for Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969). Now, nearly a half-century later, it is being revived by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company in a delightfully rambunctious production at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower New York.
This is an extraordinary work – a tongue-in-cheek comedy, an existential and absurdist tour-de-force that owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to William Shakespeare, and an exploration of the philosophical concepts of determinism, free will, chance and the laws of probability – all in one.
On the simplest level, it is a comedic spin-off from Hamlet, focusing on two minor characters from the Shakespearean play, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guldenstern, who have been tasked with accompanying Hamlet to England. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are no more than incidental characters and what we are meant to care about is what happens to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes. But in Stoppard’s play, everything is turned upside-down: it is Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern who assume center stage while Hamlet, Claudius, et al. are reduced to little more than supporting roles.
On a somewhat deeper level, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be seen as a re-working of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern may be the very reincarnations of Estragon and Vladimir (the protagonists of Beckett’s greatest work) and the Player and his acting troupe, The Tradedians (who play important roles in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) may represent Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky.
On its deepest level, however, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be interpreted as a philosophical exploration of the inter-related concepts of death and determinism, free will and the illusion of intentionality, chance and the laws of probability (this is a Stoppard play, after all).
In Stoppard’s hands, the plights that confront Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are seen to have been predetermined – or not. They are inevitable – or coincidental – or accidental – or random – or fated - or a consequence of the exercise of one’s own free will – or not. In other words, they are just the sorts of events that allow Stoppard’s imagination to take flight and permit him to explore the mathematical and physical paradoxes which have informed so many of his other works (e.g. Arcadia, Hapgood, and Jumpers).
In sum, Stoppard here addresses the fact that we all must go through life with limited knowledge – and yet we must go on. We, like Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern, don’t really know what’s going on about us, what is transpiring in the sea around us while we focus all our attention on what’s happening on the deck of our own small ship, or whether or not our seeming freedom of action is anything more than an illusion. And yet we must and do go on.
In this production, Thomas R. Gordon, the Artistic Director of The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company, has cast two women, Miranda Jean Larson and Joceylyn Vammer, as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Those roles have traditionally been played by men but this instance of gender-blind casting works beautifully, with both Larson and Vammer providing a welcome degree of light-hearted insouciance in their roles.