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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at The Huntington Theater

October 10, 2019 | By Katharine Dixon

When I sat down for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at The Huntington Theater on Wednesday night, the sparsity of college-aged attendees relative to fashionable elderly socialites didn’t surprise me, but I left convinced that Northeastern students have to give this one a chance. Just steps down the road from campus is a Shakespearian sitcom experience with a healthy dose of lewd comments and existential angst sure to resonate with any young adult. Most of us read Hamlet at some point in high school, and years of experience in this cold, loveless city between those innocent days and now only allow us to better appreciate the complex ideas the play mulls over. 

Photo Courtesy of Paul Marotta

Tom Stoppard, the playwright, includes plenty of humor and walks the audience through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s trials with touching humanity and an appreciation for confusion, making the play much more comforting than traditional Shakespeare. The actors have a remarkable ability to take a somewhat serious topic and juxtapose it with physical hijinks and brotherly affection, taking the absurdity of the comedy to a visual level. At one point, Guildenstern starts off bouncing around the stage, alternating between unadulterated delusion and being a smug, eager-to-impress logician with a slight handle on the world. Rosencrantz is also a lovable idiot, and he’s really trying his best to grapple with the drama he finds himself in. 

Stoppard manages to maintain an effortless flow between the scenes lifted from Shakespeare and the modern English he uses to tell this story. The first act — though a tad too blithe about prostitution — is everything you wouldn’t expect a philosophical extension of Hamlet to be. The play becomes more serious as it progresses, and the actors seem to gain an understanding of mortality as they watch their friend, Hamlet, struggle with his mind and circumstances. 

Photo Courtesy of T Charles Erickson

Some of the best, most touching lines come from Rosencrantz as he comes to grips with the absurdity of the world around him. His maturation throughout the play allows him to understand that the world around him will offer him no better explanations. He seems like a child, first disillusioned to life’s lack of meaning and still grappling with the idea of death. He uses this guise of ignorance to explicitly point out Stoppard’s existentialist theme. There’s still plenty of wordplay and meta-jokes keeping the momentum of the story, but the goofy antics stop, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hide in the corners of the stage as the drama takes center stage. The Player shines in this act, as he fends off questions about the nature of existence while talking about nothing more than being an actor. It’s a stunning, complex piece of meta-fiction.

I was completely enthralled by the performances of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player — and it was only the loud laughter of the audience around me that reminded me of the world outside of Huntington Theater. There is so much in the play, so many little details and so many (obvious and otherwise) meta jokes that it’s hard not to fall into the backstage drama of one of the most famous plays ever written.

Maybe I’m just not enough of a theatre connoisseur.

I could pretend that I knew who any of the actors were before I stepped into the theatre, but there really wouldn’t be a point: The brilliance of everyone up on stage speaks for itself. Don’t be intimidated by the fancy reviews, prestigious actors, or the introduction of the Wikipedia page. This is a play for us: trying to make sense of the chaos in our lives at Northeastern, desperate to find that perfect answer that completes the questions our lives pose, and leaning heavily on those around us to keep us from going insane. Lend the cast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern your ear for a few hours — it’s well worth it. All you need to know is that the play has three acts, not two, and that Guildenstern wears the red shirt while Rosencrantz dons green.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead will run at The Huntington Theater until October 20.