The lights come up on a formless landscape; two men sit, one flipping coins into the air, the other catching them. So begins the Franklin W. Olin Players’ magnificent production of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Most of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a tale of treachery and royal intrigue which examines such themes as suicide, misogyny, and tragic uncertainty – and many of us likely remember Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two peripheral characters who appear in three scenes, deliver a handful of lines, and are parenthetically killed off in the final act (oh yes, spoiler alert: at the end of Hamlet, EVERYONE DIES).
Well, that’s not the whole story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead examines the brief existence of two characters whose demise at the end of Hamlet warrants no more than the curt announcement from which Stoppard’s play gets its name.
From their humble beginnings pushing the limits of the laws of probability, to an encounter with a troupe of actors led by a cryptic and mischievous Player, to their confrontations with Hamlet’s title character, our unsung heroes stumble from scene to scene, knowing only what they are told and no more. Perpetually confused, they shuffle around their mortal coil in a (possibly futile) attempt to make sense of it all, as the events of Hamlet unfold around them.
Rachel Nagin (Wellesley ’12) plays the oft-bewildered, occasionally manic-depressive Rosencrantz. Her portrayal is a vibrant reimagining of the character with which one can’t help but sympathize as Rosencrantz’ state of mind swings from helpless confusion to cheerful optimism and back.
Rosencrantz’s counterpart, Guildenstern, is played by Molly Grossman (Olin ’13), a familiar face to tri-college theatergoers. She masterfully conveys both intellectual charm and the existential fury of a character on the brink.
First-year Claire Barnes (Olin ’15) brings extraordinary versatility to the role of The Player, donning the character’s many masks with ease and flitting effortlessly between them.
The ensemble drives the show with impeccably choreographed physical comedy and rapid-fire role-swapping. On occasion, they make the audience forget that it isn’t Shakespeare’s Hamlet we’re watching- before everyone is jerked back into the realm of tragic absurdity.
This cacophony of comedy and philosophy is imparted order by the uncommon genius of director Harold Jaffe (Olin ’12), capping his senior year at Olin with a directorial debut that will not soon be forgotten.
The humor bounces back and forth between goofy slapstick and subtle jokes that hit you two or three seconds later – and let us not forget the odd pun.
And yet, amid the laughter, introspection and uncertainty manifests itself in chilling ways; the absolutely convincing deaths acted out by the troupe of players foreshadow the real bloodshed that is to come, and one cannot forget the show’s startlingly heartrending conclusion.
In the end, I cannot praise this production highly enough. The cast and crew have come together to create an experience that will make you laugh, then gasp, then rethink your life, then laugh some more. I recommend seeing it twice, so as to catch all of the jokes.
Showtimes: 8–10pm, Friday, 3/2; Saturday, 3/3. Sorensen Theater. Tickets: $3/students, $5/general.