It’s hard to believe that Hamlet has not previously been presented in New York in repertory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s inventive and absurdist takeoff of the all-famous Shakespeare tragedy in which two minor characters take center stage. Wouldn’t this be an inspired combination for the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park season? Furthermore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead hasn’t been seen in New York in nearly three decades, while far more difficult plays by Stoppard have been revived.
As anyone even vaguely familiar with the theater scene in New York would know, there’s currently an abundance of classic drama being performed in the repertory format, including the Globe Theatre’s Richard III and Twelfth Night and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land. There’s also Bedlam’s critically acclaimed double bill of Shaw’s Saint Joan and Hamlet. Yet one would be remiss to miss out on this inspired programming choice from the Acting Company, which is renowned for bringing Shakespeare across the country each year.
Many of the actors play the same roles in both plays, meaning that John Skelley, who dominates Hamlet as the title character, barely appears in the other play. Neil Patel’s set design of a moody, gloomy Elsinore, full of steps where the characters can sit to ruminate and philosophize, is effectively used in both plays. It is very similar to the castle interior in Olivier’s film of Hamlet, which is ironic given that Olivier entirely cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The same Elizabethan-style costumes are used in both shows, too.
Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the rarer play of the two, it turns out to be the weaker production. As staged by John Rando (Urinetown, countless City Center Encores! revivals), his cast works hard at the physical comedy and presents an atmosphere of whimsy. However, they have yet to master the precise rhythm of Stoppard’s tricky, cerebral language, which makes it come off as empty instead of engaging. All the dialogue from Hamlet that is incorporated into the play is unnecessarily played up for laughs.
Grant Fletcher Prewitt (Rosencrantz) and Ian Gould (Guildenstern) make a cute and likable pair of clowns. One being short and the other tall, they look like a traditional comic duo. But they never embody the depths of their characters’ feelings of helplessness in a confounding, existentialist world. As “The Player,” who leads the traveling acting troupe that performs at Elsinore, Darien Battle provides a flamboyant and inviting presence.
Hamlet, which is helmed by Acting Company artistic director Ian Belknap, resembles a strong college production in light of its straightforward, streamlined approach to the text and the fact that most of the cast members appear to be in their mid-20s. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, looks even younger than her son.
As Hamlet, Skelley makes a credible transition from a limp, pouting mourner sitting alone in a corner of the castle into manic, unstable provocateur. Assumedly at the urging of the director, Skelley adds bits of physical business such as banging his head against the wall while Polonius rambles on or giving Claudius a big smack on the lips. His dealings with Ophelia (Angela Janas) are jarringly violent. At the start, Janas is a sympathetic and credible Ophelia, stressing her innocence, but she throws the character’s mad scene out of balance by choosing accusatory anger over fragility.
Finally, it is worth noting that Joshua Johnston, son of Patti LuPone, who toured with the Acting Company before she achieved fame, appears in both plays. Let’s see if Johnston continues to follow in his mother’s footsteps.