In an environment such as Washington, D.C., with only one major newspaper with one major critic that everyone defers to, it can be a rough go for any theatre production that does not live up to that one particular person’s preferred cup of tea.
On the other hand, the critics overwhelmingly panned “Spiderman 3,” but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the biggest box office successes ever. Sometimes the critics are just flat wrong because they’re focusing on the wrong things, from the public’s point of view.
In the case of the Studio Theatre’s new “Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead,” its entry into the Shakespeare in Washington Festival now underway, the overriding and summary question is, “Is it worth seeing, or not?”
On that one, for a variety of reasons, the resounding answer is, “Yes!” Here are some of those reasons:
1. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, who first put this on the stage 40 years ago in London when he was only 29. His stellar career has a lot of Shakespeare in it, including participating in writing the screenplay for the Academy Award’s Best Picture of 1999, Shakespeare in Love. An up close and personal, as the Studio Theatre indeed is, opportunity to experience his work is worth the effort, alone.
2. The subject, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” taken from a markedly different perspective, like watching it from behind the curtain instead of in front of it. Don’t try this if you are not familiar with “Hamlet,” however. From a student’s point of view, of any age, however, this approach is intellectually quite stimulating and challenging. It opens a new universe of perception that can be applied to many situations.
3. The era, meaning the world of 1967. The comparison of this work to Samuel Becket’s classic of existentialism, “Waiting for Godot,” is constant. Frankly, it is akin to an acid flashback to be returned to an age when baby boomers, not confronted with the urgent survival needs of a Great Depression or world war like their parents or grandparents, became obsessed with the so-called “meaning of existence,” itself, and became fixated on death, trying to appreciate it as a reality and not an abstraction. This comes in the context of the Cold War, a world on the brink of self-annihilation through a global thermonuclear holocaust. God, how many all night conversations on such matters were there in the dorm rooms of that era? How fun.
One of the stock phrases of the counterculture that grew from all this, triggered by works like this one, “Godot,” Camus, Sartre and Marcuse, was the slogan, “Do It! 100 Years from Now No One Will Know the Difference!” It’s appropriate to the Shakespeare play, too, of course, because Hamlet could be considered as caught in an existentialist dilemma (he failed to “Do It,” to kill the king when he had the chance and could have avoided the bloody ending).
Stoppard’s clever approach is not only to turn the play inside out, so to speak, but to mix morbid fixation on death with bawdy humor. We are tugged back and forth between belly laughs, the outrageous, and pensive introspection on ultimate things.
Lead actors Raymond Bokhour (Rosencrantz) and Liam Craig (Gildenstern) are engaging and entertaining in the lead roles, being the two tasked in the Shakespeare play with escorting Hamlet to England, passive victims of inevitable events that they’re seemingly aware of are spelled out in the play’s preexisting script. The title of the play comes from one line uttered in the play.
Floyd King, starring as the head of the troupe of actors hired by Hamlet to ferret out the complicity of his mother in his father’s death, is a sheer delight, a pragmatic and fatalistic foil to the existentially-gripped R & G. Included in his troupe of ragamuffins is Miles Butler of Falls Church. At 15 but with already a long list of credits from theatres around the whole D.C. area, this is his most significant role yet, and his convincing energy, expressiveness and penchant for the slapstick demonstrated in this show will undoubtedly propel his young career.
For anyone eager to get caught up in the wonderful swirl of the Shakespeare in Washington Festival, including “R & G” on the dance card is a must.