William Shakespeare’s Hamlet still haunts the world because it remains the single greatest play ever written. Tom Stoppard, influenced by the spare wit of Samuel Beckett, sought to place wit in the then-current philosophical context of relativism in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), an early play, piggy-backing on Hamlet, that made Stoppard’s illustrious career. If you have forgotten Hamlet, it is best to brush up on it—otherwise you will miss half the witticisms and may find yourself at sea like the titular characters.
The play is a meta-play, that is, a play about acting. The principal reason for seeing the current production is to catch Michael DaTorre as the Player. DaTorre is the seasoned thespian that dominates the play—he is what every other actor on stage aspires to be: he knows how to phrase a line, how to wring resonate echo from a word, how a gesture of the arm or head becomes living art.
DaTorre overshadows Rosencrantz played by Steve Cohen and Guildenstern played by Brett Owen. They suffer by over-paced direction from debut director Robyn Sweetnam Smith. As a consequence, Beckettesque humor is either diminished or lost. Their mutual wit employs the metaphor of a tennis game, yet the patter is so quick and hollowly loud that it resembles a Ping-Pong contest rather than the scheming thwock of a well-placed tennis ball. In the second and third act Owen slows down his tempo and so dominates Cohen’s manic patter that the cynical comic edge to the Beckettesque balance is lost. Owen’s performance remains sterling in the second and third acts, and it becomes the second reason for attending this performance.
There’s a gaggle of local, aspiring thespians in minor roles, which at times become problematic, yet the mime kabuki-style staging of the play-within-play with white masks is directed so well that it becomes the third reason for watching this performance.
This is a long three-act play at the end of the three-act play tradition when television began affecting mass-audience attention spans, and playwrights caved into producer's demands for two-act plays.
Set design by Amy Weintraub deserves applause. Toward the end of the third act the lighting was uncertain and it contributed to the play ending with more of a whimper than philosophical bang, although one might make the claim that Stoppard’s philosophy is itself mere coy word-play cleverly dressed than earnest thought, although as a rambling meditation on death, the play ascends the scales of eloquence.
For fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this play contains certain rare intellectual pleasures that will not disappear as long as we remember the eloquent genius who penned the most highly politically-charged play ever written in English. There is sufficient wit to amuse (but no politics) in this production of Stoppard’s play by the Rhinebeck Theatre Society which runs at the Center for Performing Arts through April 9.