Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
As summer heats up and San Diegans make their annual migration to the beach, local theatre ramps up as well. An antithesis to many cities across the country, San Diego sees a surge in productions in our local theatres, and a cornerstone of this tradition is the Shakespeare Festival now playing at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
The festival, traditionally two of Shakespeare’s works and one contemporary with mirroring Shakespearean themes, includes the whimsical "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," the comedy "The Merchant of Venice," and Tom Stoppard’s "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."
First up is Stoppard’s absurd comedy about two minor characters in "Hamlet," Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are sent to England with a letter asking the English King to impart death upon Hamlet.
The play actually begins well before this fateful journey and debates deep existential philosophies, the conflict between art and reality, fate and insignificance. It also lands quite a bit of sharp comedy along the way.
Anchoring the title roles are John Lavelle (Rosencrantz), who returns to The Old Globe after a six-year absence, and Jay Whittaker (Guildenstern), whom Globe-goers will easily recognize as a key player over the last four summer seasons.
Lavelle brings a delightful innocence to Rosencrantz, a sense of wit and naivety that keeps the audience guessing about his true sense of awareness almost as much as to his true identity. Whittaker is the perfect counterbalance to Lavelle though at times the absurdity brings them so closely inline they nearly mirror each other.
Also of note is Sherman Howard (The Player) grandiose, lumbering along the stage, and trampling the line between titillating and terrifying. Some of the biggest laughs were brought by one character with nary a line throughout the whole production, that of Alfred (Stephen Hu). Hu adds some slapstick comedy and a pout that just warms you right down to your toes. Playing right into the themes of existentialism and insignificance, Alfred’s character is one that could easily be traded out or forgotten all together, but Hu made the role necessary, pandering for every laugh and owning every minute he was afforded.
Always well balanced, the performances at The Old Globe are consistently technically sound, and this is no exception. In scenic design Ralph Funicello created a moving proscenium that quickened scene changes and added a little wow factor to the show. Creating absurd elements, like a barrel that acts more like a clown car, he added to the spectacle and helped blur the lines between reality and ridiculousness.
Deirdre Clancy’s costume design was foolproof, appropriate and practical. Lighting design by Alan Burrett and sound by Dan Moses Schreier rounded out a beautifully staged take on what was waiting in the wings during Shakespeare’s "Hamlet."
Playing in repertory with "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and "The Merchant of Venice," this timeless piece is both a classic and a premium example of well-staged niche theatre.