The Sikes Theatre on the Jacksonville campus of The Episcopal School was the scene of four performances of Tony Award winning playwright Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” on stage November 13 – 16.
It had been a number of years since we last saw a play at the Sikes Theatre and it has been extensively renovated with remarkably comfortable seating, making it an excellent 130-seat setting for theatrical productions.
Audience members familiar with Shakespeare’s classic “Hamlet” would likely have recognized the two sublime nobodies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who had the job of being spies for King Claudius in the matter of Hamlet’s madness. For those in the full house audience who need to brush up on the Bard, KELBY SIDDONS, Assistant Director, provided an excellent synopsis in the playbill.
Stoppard adapted these two minor characters and made them the stars of his play, which debuted in the 1960s at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The work was responsible for launching Stoppard’s long and successful career as a playwright and screenwriter and has become a classic.
The play opens with our two heroes responding to the call of a mysterious messenger; they have no information about why the summons was given. For the next forty-five minutes, this comic duo tries to deduce by logical processes who they are, where they are, and why they are there. While they have no evidence to support their conclusions, still, it is their way of asserting their sanity. At this point the familiar story of “Hamlet” comes into play.
The two actors, RICHIE MULLANEY as Rosencrantz and JOHN MICHAEL CURRIE, as Guildenstern were marvelous in the leading roles. Besides being razor-sharp with their lines while constantly on stage for over two hours, they physically mugged and hugged every emotion in this ambitious production. During their journey, we saw small vignettes from Hamlet and Director KATIE BLACK kept the mood of this example of the Theatre of the Absurd very humorous, much to the delight of the audience.
We got to know briefly several of the major characters from Hamlet, like the handsome Prince of Denmark himself (LIAM GENTRY), the nervous Polonius (LUCAS BUFORD), King Claudius (JACK STEPHENS), Queen Gertrude (SAVANNAH WILKERSON), the fair Ophelia (CAITIE ROMERO), Horatio (DANI LEGRAND), Fortinbras (KRIS HODGES), Laertes (JESSICA FONDO), and the Ambassador (JONATHAN RYALS), who also appeared as an Elsinore soldier, along with HEATHER FISHBACK.
The talented Tragedians were led with gusto by the animated HANNAH MARSHALL, as The Player. They performed hilarious scenes in slapstick vaudeville style. KEATON BOYD was the gorgeous Alfred, RACHEL KINCART was the Poisoner King, with SAVANNAH FRITZ the Player Queen. Spies EMILY BAJALIA and LINDSAY LIBERA were equally humorous. As the Tragedian Musician, ANNA BLAKE displayed versatility with several instruments while high on a balcony during the troupe’s performance. Many of the supporting characters doubled back, joined by TAYLOR SCHUSTER and MEG SLAY as attendants and menacing pirates.
The actors had the opportunity to perform on a majestic set designed by North Florida guru of set design, JOHNNY PETTEGREW. The set was two stories tall and ran the length of stage. Three balconies and many doors and windows provided atmosphere and many opportunities for creative action-filled scenes. Technical Director/Lighting Designer MEGAN ELSILA created evocative pictures with her lighting, and we were especially impressed with the play within a play scene where Claudius is exposed as the murderer of Hamlet’s father.
We have seen this play done in contemporary clothing, but much preferred the costumes by CAROL SIDDONS, which reflected the life and times of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and were very colorful.
CHRISTOPHER BEAULIEU as choreographer and combat consultant created the raucously delightful chase scene, with the cast repeatedly encircling the entire theatre from front to back. JEANANN HOSEA handled the position of Stage Manager.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is often compared to “Waiting for Godot,” the most successful and famous of the Absurdist Plays, but “Rosencrantz” is much more humorous and certainly more quotable. Some great lines in this play include: “Eternity is a terrible thought, where is it going to end?” and “We are actors, the opposite of people.”
This witty and entertaining play was challenging for both the cast and the audience. The play is far more complex than it appears on the surface, and part of the fun was experiencing the unexpected gems of philosophical musing that Stoppard created, imbued with life by a dedicated cast.