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article imageReview: Toronto's Soulpepper fills Stoppard classic with energy, flair Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Feb 14, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is a play in danger of becoming overly familiar, another “modern classic” ruined by time and too many revivals. It takes an energetic cast and vision to make Tom Stoppard's great tragicomedy seem new again.
Happily for Toronto theatre-goers, the Soulpepper company specializes in fresh, entertaining takes on old warhorses. And its new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – the topsy-turvy re-imagining of William Shakespeare's Hamlet that put British playwright Stoppard on the map in 1966 – is funny, fast-paced and never dull. Thanks largely to heartfelt performances by Ted Dykstra and Jordan Pettle in the title roles, plus Joseph Ziegler's often vibrant direction, it keeps up with Stoppard's constant linguistic gymnastics with few major stumbles.
Basic familiarity with Hamlet is a great help in appreciating Stoppard's meta-theatrical play, which presents the Bard's famous tragedy through the eyes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two throwaway bit parts in the original. Lost, confused and completely out of step with the main action, this Abbott-and-Costello-like duo kills time “offstage” with word games, coin tosses, philosophical discussions and role-playing as they try to understand what their purpose in the story is. They even confuse their own names at times.
Along the way, they confront the acting troupe from Hamlet's turning point, while also appearing in or witnessing overlapping scenes from Shakespeare, situations that look utterly absurd from their point of view. As much as it rethinks Shakespeare, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also reworks Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot – this time with a lingering dramatic irony, as the audience already has the scoop on what's really going on, fully aware that the characters are doomed by the machine.
Despite a few evident cuts to the text – Guildenstern's “Give us this day our daily _____” refrain is strangely absent – this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gleefully indulges in Stoppard's witty, intelligent language, which blends quick comedic wordplay with serious existential questions. Dykstra and Pettle take on Stoppard's dialogue with ease and enthusiasm while building on the characters with broad strokes (Pettle makes Guildenstern smart, well-spoken and suspicious; Dykstra's Rosencrantz is more naive, emotional and dimwitted, whining “I want to go home!” when things get confusing). In some scenes, such as when the pair bickers or plays Questions, both of them lob words back and forth as furiously as if they were playing a hyper, high-speed ping pong game. But the play doesn't rely solely on talk; Ziegler keeps them active and moving around the stage, frantic and on edge with uncertainty or paranoid about what's coming next.
Ziegler, a Dora-winning veteran actor who also helmed Stoppard's Travesties for Soulpepper in 2009, presents the play as theatre in the round, turning the stage into a trap where Hamlet characters and scenes assault Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from all directions. This arena format works well as a thematic strategy – creating a more unpredictable space, as opposed to the fixed boundaries of the proscenium arch or thrust stage – while also succumbing to the form's typical limitations, with actors often speaking with their backs to a quarter of the audience or blocking other actors. But Ziegler makes up for the sometimes awkward staging with a high energy level. Whenever the Players (led by Kenneth Welsh) take the stage, you're treated to some colourful, finely choreographed reenactments of The Murder of Gonzago (which turns out to be a version of Hamlet itself).
Rounding out the leads, Welsh adds a kind of distanced authority as the lead Player, taunting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with his company's nonchalant attitude towards death and giving the impression he has inside information that the leads lack. The always reliable Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk are more than adequate in their brief turns as Claudius and Gertrude. Gregory Prest makes for a dull, one-note Hamlet, but since he's really just a bit part here, that doesn't matter so much; it might even be deliberate and part of Ziegler's intentions. The same goes for William Webster's take on Polonius, which has little of the doddering, comic cluelessness we're used to seeing in the character.
The production isn't without its small hiccups. The follow-up lines to Dykstra's shout of “Fire!” (when he decides to show off “the misuse of free speech”) are mistimed; his reaction to the audience's lack of panic should be one of the play's funnier meta moments. And there's an odd interlude in the third act when the characters are hiding in three barrels and the lights dim, allowing for two stagehands to walk on hurriedly and remove one barrel, thereby spoiling the effect of its “disappearance” in the next scene. (Maybe they couldn't figure out a safe way to remove it in total darkness?)
Minor defects aside, Soulpepper's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is good enough that even people who've seen or read the play numerous times will enjoy it anew. And even if you haven't read Hamlet since high school, Stoppard's high-brow sense of farce and love of language (as the cast delivers it) will still infect you.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs at Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 2.
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