“Who are we when nobody is watching?” goes the director’s tagline for Nomadic Theater’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a post-absurdist play by Tom Stoppard. Director Kathleen Joyce (COL ‘15) notes that, “We live a fundamentally absurd existence with rules that don’t make sense. … Post-absurdism says ‘How can we live our lives under those assumptions? How can we be sane and happy given the chaotic universe that we live in?’”
So how do we feel less alone? Don’t get bogged down by these heavy questions and life, the universe, and everything. Instead, go see Nomadic Theatre’s brilliant production. See who Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are when they think no one is watching.
I cannot insist enough that you go and see this play. Stoppard is the first playwright who has simply stopped me in my tracks. He is a genius with word play, and as his characters exclaim, “Words are all we have to go on.” This play is in the service of words, even in their inadequacy to find reason in a senseless word. Hamlet is described as “talking nonsense to others … and sense to himself,” and all of Stoppard’s characters do just that, weaving in Socrates, the Sophists, and Shakespearean references. A play like this one, though, requires actors and production with the skills to add a robust third dimension to the work—words are not, in fact, all they have to go on. And in this, Nomadic Theatre succeeds to the highest degree.
Grayson Ullman (COL ‘16) is incredible as The Player, the leader of a band of ruffian (tawdry) actors. From his fluid movements to the deep timbre of his voice, he radiates energy. While he speaks, Ullman is in character from head to toe. The way he presses the fingers of his left hand together, the Player’s comforting tic, especially adds emphasis to his sophistic soliloquies. The players, too, are stunning, from each miniscule facial twitch to the complicated choreography they master.
In a supremely talented cast, the other standout performance comes from Taylor Rasmussen (COL ‘16) as Guildenstern, in a moving portrayal of the only character in the play that puts any real effort toward finding reason.
Though an absurdist play, its many elements are pulled together impressively, though seemingly coincidentally. The costumes, designed by Claytia Gonsalves (SFS ‘15), were autumnal, corresponding with what Guildenstern calls “a certain brownness at the edges of the day. … Russets and tangerine shades of old gold flushing the very outside edge of the senses.” They are clever takes on Shakespearian style—a mashing of traditional with crisp, 20th century lines and cuts.
The set is a powerful actor too, with psychedelic designs and funhouse entrances, including tunnels, stairwells (both rightside-up and upside-down), and, my personal favorite, a rock-climbing wall leading off (and up) stage right. Perhaps the silliest piece of blocking was Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, tying up her bountiful skirts to climb the rock wall out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and into the world of Hamlet.
The characters shuffle off stage to their lives as we know them best in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Stoppard wrote the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, minor courtiers in Hamlet, piecing together their mission, situation, and ultimate fate based on snippets of Hamlet itself, coupled with, in Joyce’s words, “losing it, essentially, and figuring out how to go on after you’ve lost it.”
You can catch the (albeit only slightly) more sane world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the Davis Theater the first two weeks of November, put on by the Department of Performing Arts. Just be sure you don’t miss Nomadic Theater’s showings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead this weekend and next weekend, Thursday through Saturday with a Sunday matinee. To paraphrase Rosencrantz, I don’t know if you’ll leave enlightened, but you’ll most certainly leave intrigued.