Saturday, February 23, 2013

Breaking the Proverbial Fourth Wall: Soulpepper's Production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Ted Dykstra & Jordan Peddle
In the middle of Act II of Soulpepper Theatre's new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Rosencrantz (played by Ted Dykstra) ponders the feeling of being buried alive and comes to the conclusion that “life in a box is better than no life at all…I suppose.” Such is the dilemma of two minor Shakespearian characters brought to life in one of Tom Stoppard’s most popular plays. Written in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was an immediate hit and once you’ve seen it, you’ll know why. First, it’s a wide-ranging comedy featuring a consistent series of pratfalls matched by some of the wittiest dialogue ever written for the theatre. Second, it makes fun of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies (Hamlet) as seen through the eyes of two of its minor characters. The rest is an imaginary ride into the unknown as notions of being are seriously considered by the leading characters: Why are we here? Where are we going? And what is the point of all this? The play also offers up cogent ideas central to the art of theatre: What is the difference between acting and reality.

Using the few scenes from Shakespeare’s play, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jordan Peddle) appear in order to link the narrative, Stoppard lets us entertain the notion of what these two characters are doing when they’re not in the play. But rather than being servants of the King, who wants them to find out what’s wrong with Hamlet, they are philosophers in Stoppard’s eyes. These are men who have a history, although they can’t remember it, but the thrive on chance and the odds of moving forward successfully. Alas, they may be full of ideas and they have the desire to travel forward but their fears often stop them from moving very far. In this first-rate production, those limitations are literally the stage on which they are set. In other words the physical boundaries match the emotional ones.

Presented in circle-in-the-round, Soulpepper’s season-opening production works extremely well because the actors can enter and exit from five different points. The fifth point is under the stage itself. The exception is the lead characters. They’re stuck in one place as the “supporting” cast come and go in easy fashion, but only when it involves the Shakespeare play itself. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are courtiers who only appear a couple of times during the course of Hamlet. They are summoned by the King, played by Diego Matamoros, to watch the Prince of Denmark (Gregory Prest) and to report back to him about Hamlet’s moves and his mood. Later, they escort Hamlet from Denmark to England with a letter to hand over to the King of England upon arrival. In Hamlet, we don’t know the contents of the letter as such. Through Stoppard, we learn that the letter is an order to have Hamlet killed for murdering Polonius. Hamlet then switches letters with different instructions. And eventually, as reported at the end of the Shakespearian play by some ambassadors, the two “are dead” by the executioner’s noose.

Kenneth Walsh as the Player

Stoppard uses these limited scenes as a device to string together his series of scenes that could occur outside or off-stage. To him, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are inseparable friends who ponder their lives before us. Jordan Peddle and Ted Dykstra play the leads beautifully. They’re an energetic pair, who are never off stage during the 2-hour-plus performance. They never seem to falter as the playwright’s words pour out of them like lava, laying philosophical waste in their wake. It’s a terrific performance from start to finish as each actor relishes the words they have been given and can’t wait to share. Kenneth Welsh is the “Player,” an ageing actor leading a troupe of musicians and pantomime artists looking for an audience. They find one with Hamlet, of course, but they also enjoy the audience of “two” provided them by Stoppard. One of Welsh’s finer moments comes as he answers the question of what an actor does when he gets old: “they still act.” The humour of the moment, hearing this line from one of Canada’s finest actors, is not lost on the audience. Welsh is superb in this play. He has fun on stage, matching the energy of the lead actors and that engages the audience. Although I'm not sure why some people did not return after the second intermission.

One of the most interesting choices Director Joseph Ziegler makes is to not perform the play in dialect or English accents. As a result, this production is remarkably accessible by audiences of all ages. It’s completely unpretentious with Canadian accents; almost street theatre in a way, like we’re witnessing an improvised play. By doing so, the proverbial fourth wall is broken and our imagination is left open to the philosophical qualities of the work and the charm of its two main protagonists.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead closes March 2nd.

John Corcelli is an actor and theatre director.

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