All right, gearing up for my first theatre review since high school. This could be… rocky.
I’ve got a love-like-meh relationship with the Soulpepper Theatre Company. On the one hand, they’re one of Toronto’s best-known small companies and they have a great reputation. On the other hand, a bunch of what I see there just doesn’t work for me. I want to like it, in the way that I want the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays to do well. I’m a fan in spirit, but sometimes I just can’t get behind what they’re actually offering.
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a great little play that’s right up my alley – absurd and existential. It basically takes a hard look at two minor characters from Hamlet (the prince’s “friends” who spy on him and take him to be executed, only to be double-crossed and killed themselves) and makes them the stars of the show. Only, what do you do when your existence is defined by the script? As the play opens, R (Ted Dykstra) and G (Jordan Pettle) are playing at coins, amazed that they’ve successfully flipped heads about 80 times running. Will it ever land on tails? Slowly they realize that they have no idea where they are, who they are, or where they can go. They’re not even certain which one of them is Rosencrantz, and for all the care that Hamlet gives them, it doesn’t matter. They’re tools to be pulled on stage at the behest of others, dispatched when no longer needed.
Dykstra and Pettle make a good comic pairing as they try to navigate their helpless, hopeless world. Dykstra brings a wonderful sense of uncomprehending to Rosencrantz, a character who can’t quite wrap his head around the concept of his existence but knows enough to be scared of it. “I want to go home now,” is an early refrain. Pettle as Guildenstern, for my money, brings less to his role as the intelligent one of the pair. He does well at getting his mouth around G’s scientific-method-bound dialogue, first using the Law of Probability and then the Law of Averages to deduce their situation, but for me he was less of a character and more of a script with legs.
And that’s basically it. Dykstra and Pettle spend their time parsing the information given to them (“He’s melancholy! Transformed!”) and bring a great sense of just being along for the ride to their scenes with main characters. Their dialogue with Hamlet is straight out of the Bard’s original, but they’re nervous and terrified of saying the wrong thing. Hamlet and Claudius blather on through their lines at lightning speed while R & G are barely able to keep up, saying words they feel are right but cannot understand. They only realize why they’re escorting Hamlet to England and death when they’re already on the boat, and after debating the ethics, decide that the only thing they can do is to carry on. Maybe then they’ll be free.
Director Joseph Ziegler made a great decision in using a theatre in the round stage configuration. Surrounding the stage with audience amplifies the idea that R&G are trapped by their reality, surrounded on all sides. Other actors come and go, but always in front of us are Dykstra and Pettle, flipping coins, examining their existence, making jokes and trying to get home.
As I said, it’s a great script. I love meta-stories that comment on the nature of stories, and focusing on a couple of bit characters and their time in the margins when not in use is a great way to do it. So why aren’t I raving about this show? Honestly, I found it a bit slow and boring. And here’s where my lack of experience at reviewing theatre comes in: I can’t explain why! I want to say it was Pettle who dragged it down. Guildenstern’s dialogue is so heavy on intellectual-speak that it’s hard to be emotional while speaking it. Whereas Dykstra brought a level of terrified earnestness to Rosencrantz, Pettle as Guildenstern struck me with less emotion than I would have liked and more pure exposition.
I could complain about the acting troupe that Hamlet employs – I found them to be weird for the sake of weird more than poignant. Also, was I thinking too hard about everyone’s costumes, which are straight out of the Elizabethan Closet of Traditional Garments? I mean, this is a very modern-minded play, so shouldn’t the costumes be, I don’t know, not so grounded in period fashions? These are the things I thought about when I should have been engrossed in the drama.
Ultimately, all I can say is that the material was stronger than the production, an issue I have more often than I’d like with Soulpepper. They’ve done amazing stuff, but this production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead wasn’t it.
Clever, mostly entertaining, and a little slow. I wouldn’t warn you off of it, but I can’t recommend it, either.
I’ll be seeing another nine (nine!) Soulpepper shows this year, plus a few in New York, Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, so presumably I’ll get more coherent at writing these things. Plus, I’ll have more time to see Soulpepper be awesome, especially in a repeat of last season’s breakout Parfumerie. Til then,