Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a highly ambitious production to stage. For starters, it's about three hours long, which can tax the stamina of even the most hardened theatre patron. And it has quite a large cast, larger than most productions that are staged in the tiny Joyce Doolittle theatre of the Pumphouse.
Morpheus Theatre's production is faithful to the original, first staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966. We rather expected that we would see a condensed version of the play, given the limitations of the room in which it was being staged, so were surprised that Morpheus Theatre decided to go big rather than go home.
And to their credit, they pulled it off.
Ripe with rapid wordplay and Shakespearean dialogue amongst performance art and play within a play theatrical elements, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a sparkling piece of existential absurdism in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, attempt to make sense of their existence, even while often forgetting their quest and even their own names. The play does demand a forgone familiarity with Hamlet to fully appreciate the plot elements, and I noticed that the organizers had posted an "elements of Hamlet" primer in the lobby for those needing a refresher course in Shakespeare, which I thought was a nice touch.
The full-house audience in attendance on Wednesday evening needed no such primer. Judging from the laughter, they were not only well versed in the plot elements, but attentive enough to catch the rapid repartee passing back and forth on stage. A group of about fifteen teenagers were in the audience, evidently a Theatre or perhaps English class of some kind, and it was delightful to see them hanging onto each word of the play. Judging from the rapt expressions on their faces and their obvious delight in the dialogue, they were fully attentive for the entire three hours.
When I spoke with director Michelle Brandenburg about the packed house, she told me that all but two performances of the fifteen performance production schedule were completely sold out. I find that a heartening statement about the level of engagement of Calgary theatre audiences.
While Morpheus' production was brilliantly staged, there were a few minor elements that interfered with my ability to lose myself completely in the action. The first was a matter of blocking, At times, my view of the action was obscured by another character, standing to the side of the stage. Sometimes the speaker would have his back to me. Given the limitations of the small room, the presence of a large cast, and the fact that I sat at the very side of the audience, I can understand how this would occasionally occur.
The other issue was a matter of costuming. For the most part, the costumes were very well done, quite authentic looking Shakespearean garb. The character of The Player, however, who is the leader of a traveling theatre troupe, wears what appears to be a codpiece, which is distracting and somewhat disturbing. The codpiece is red, stitched so that it appears to contain a tennis ball or something, and looks for all the world like ... how to put this delicately ... like The Player is sporting an enormous red erection. Since the theatre troupe do function at times as prostitutes to offset their meagre theatrical earnings, perhaps this was the intent.
Morpheus Theatre's production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a delightfully clever staging of the play, fearless in its determination to present the often challenging and intricate wordplay of this philosophical tragicomedy, exuberant in its portrayal of the sometimes absurd physical comedy which accompanies the cleverness of the language.