We’d all be lucky if this review had half the wit of Tom Stoppard.
It won’t, of course. Nor will it be as funny – and yes, there is a difference between wit and humor. In fact, it’s very, very hard to be as simultaneously humorous and biting as Stoppard, even if you are reciting his own words. Thus the failures in Theatre UCSB’s production of Stoppard’s breakout play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” should not necessarily be held against the group, any more than you, dear reader, would hold it against me for writing a review that makes up in pretension what it lacks in panache.
Which is not to say the production is all failure. Overwhelming negativity is too easy, and not helpful. In fact, it would be unfair for me not to urge you, one and all, to see this play. It is worth every dime – and entertaining throughout – partially by pure virtue of Stoppard’s script and partially owing to some clever performances. What the production lacks is not talent, nor virtue; it just lacks brilliance.
The play itself is a dense yet fast-paced recitation on death, volition and the nature of a dramatic character, resulting in the kind of work that is called “meta-theater” by people you would never voluntarily hang out with. The protagonists are, surprise, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose only real claim to fame is being the last characters to have their deaths acknowledged in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare, I recommend a punch in the ear.) The pair bumble through the action of Hamlet itself, conversing among themselves during the many pauses between their moments in the spotlight while never addressing the ambiguity surrounding Hamlet’s old friends’ role in his downfall. Combining moments of slapstick, semi-automatic banter and creeping despair, the play provides an emotional tilt-a-whirl that qualifies as a pinnacle of modern drama.
The problem is, Theatre UCSB’s production latches onto certain aspects of the script – the comedy – and overlooks certain other aspects – the banter – thus sacrificing the remaining essentials – the despair.
Jesse Gustafson as the high-minded, over-intellectualizing Guildenstern is adequate but far too neurotic; instead of being wooed by Guildenstern’s logic, and thus feeling betrayed when it proves unreliable, the audience finds him immediately suspect. Gustafson’s bearing purveys a sense of impending doom, but rather than be surprised (or as surprised as one can be, knowing the outcome of Hamlet) at his fate, we are contemptuous of his inability to avoid it. His clipped, nasal delivery, although adequate for the role, comes across as a mere parody, and if we cannot see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as more than caricatures, then we are denied much of the point of the play.
Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (a surname that begs for a barrage of easy puns) stands out in his role as Rosencrantz. Near-Verbrugghe is Near-Flawless (easy pun #1) at physical comedy, which, as the more foolish of the pair, Rosencrantz has the best opportunities to engage in. Near-Verbrugghe even displayed a remarkable knack for improv, playing off a few miscues and prop “malfunctions” (rather, actors malfunctioning whilst manipulating props) in a manner that was, well, quite clever. His expressions were also priceless; he has the malleable features that many a physical comic built a career on.
His one problem was that he made everything into a joke. His exaggerated movements and rubber-faced looks, while tremendously funny, drew attention away from the rat-a-tat-tat sparkle the play’s dialogue boasts.
Appropriate enough for a play about bit characters, the smaller roles in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” nearly steal the stage whenever they are on. Justin Badger gleefully launches himself over the top as the Player, and the result is engrossing, entertaining and most of all sympathetic – the Player is easy to play as amorphously villainous. Contrarily, Edi Gathegi’s Hamlet, far from being the noble prince of Denmark, oozes venomous danger and restrained violence like no other portrayal of the character I have ever seen. I would like to see Gathegi do Shakespeare’s play, but he is far more than adequate for Stoppard’s.
The direction, under grad student Timothy Scholl, also emphasizes the humor over the wit; extending pauses in the script into vast empty stretches makes the resulting lines that much more side-splitting, but takes away from the rhythm. Likewise, retorts are drawn out into punch lines and flippant remarks are drawn out into crass jokes. A few points belabored and an aesthetically questionable denouement (another word used by people you wouldn’t want to hang out with) add up to a performance that is entertaining, but never quite as moving as one might wish.