When you go see a Tom Stoppard play, you have to be ready to work, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is no exception. A Neil Simon piece this is not. Stoppard requires audiences to listen to every word, every nuance, every moment, and come the end of the nearly three-hour evening, one may feel like they’ve run some sort of an intellectual marathon.
At the Wilma, Blanka Zizka‘s intense staging of Stoppard’s absurdist comedy indeed makes the audience work, but not to the point of fatigue. I’ve seen Stoppard where I’ve wanted to rip my hair from my head come the end of the performance, but that clearly wasn’t the case here. Instead, Ms. Zizka, who may very well be considered one of Stoppard’s greatest interpreters, moved her stellar cast to give performances worthy of numerous Barrymore awards.
Part of the genius of this production is the recycling of the Wilma’s recent Hamlet cast into the same roles in R and G: Sarah Gliko repeats her role of Ophelia, Krista Apple-Hodge plays Gertude in both productions, and so on. However, the dynamic duo at the forefront of the evening are Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan who play the mismatched, ill-fated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or is that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?). Both Conallen and McLenigan were outstanding during Wednesday’s performance and demonstrated an almost superhuman emotional and physical endurance throughout the night (“That guy with the beard [McLenigan] must do a lot of yoga,” an audience member behind me whispered at one point in act two).
However, one of the major highlights of the production has to be Ed Swidey, who gave a rousing performance as the First Player. Talk about having to work: Mr. Swidey delved into the multilayered persona of the leader of the traveling troupe of absurdist theater actors who keep popping up throughout the story, even on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The rest of the ensemble was also quite good and demonstrated some amazing feats of physical comedy throughout (Adam Kerbel, who plays the cross-dressing Alfred, was particularly humorous).
At the end of the performance, we’re left with a lot of philosophical inquiries about life and death and “the meaning of life” stuff, but that’s the point of Stoppard’s work. And, to be frank, isn’t that what a good evening at the theatre is supposed to do? This odd couple makes us work, but we’re more than happy to put in the hours.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead runs through June 14 at the Wilma Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.