On Stage: What Is It All About?

by Chuck Conconi

Inspired casting and imaginative direction make ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ a must-see. 

Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown, left) and Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon) try to figure out what their next plan of action will be in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. On stage at Folger Theatre, May 12 – June 21, 2015. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown) and Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon) try to figure out what their next plan of action will be in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the Folger Theatre. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Where am I? Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? What is it all about? Where does it all end?

Those are the imponderable questions we grapple with in attempting to understand existence. And those questions are the central core of Tom Stoppard’s nonsensically witty play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Folger Theatre.

Stoppard made that existential confusion into a comedic journey for his hapless title characters. They are minor players who appear in “Hamlet” as childhood friends of the gloomy Danish prince. He also pays homage to the two tramps in “Waiting for Godot” in having his characters stumble about on a confusing journey.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is an elegantly written absurdist play, imaginatively interpreted by director Aaron Posner who choreographed the pair on their ramble. Posner’s selection of Adam Wesley Brown as Guildenstern and Romell Witherspoon as Rosencrantz is inspired casting. They are contemporary losers, unconsciously adrift and caught up in an adventure beyond their depth. They don’t even know who they are and are frequently confusing each other’s names; even other characters are similarly confused. They are stumbling about in a play within a play and are unaware of the plot.

Nothing good can come of this and it doesn’t. Helen Q. Huang’s costume design, basically grunge complete with hoodies, emphasizes a recognition of a youthful studied indifference to what they are wearing. They could easily be wandering around unnoticed on M Street in Georgetown.

Even the laws of probability are against them. Rosencrantz is constantly flipping a coin that always comes up heads. It comes up heads 92 times. Stoppard’s intellectually unpretentious romp has a wonderfully absurd plot structure that Posner deftly controls in this grab-bag collection of characters out of Hamlet, with a mix of a troupe of Tragedian performers and a run in with pirates.

Paige Hathaway has designed the Folger stage as a cluttered attic with an array of skulls, stacks of books and manuscripts, upside down lamp shades, suitcases, and even a ship’s wheel. It all fits into Stoppard’s characters on their disjointed odyssey.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned by the Danish king, Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather, to help with Hamlet’s dark mood. They don’t understand why they have been called and meet a troupe of actors led by the great scene stealer Ian Merrill. He has some of the play’s best lines and takes advantage of them. His antics and rapid fire delivery keeps the cleverly written play from closing in on itself.

The king gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a sealed letter to take to the King of England, which instructs him to kill Hamlet. They don’t know the contents of the letter and don’t know why he chose them to deliver it. Hamlet, however, discovers the letter and replaces it with another one telling the British king to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. And at some point, they are ambushed by pirates.

Posner’s cast commands the smart and rapid fire dialogue. This production respects Stoppard’s unique talents in covering his meaning of life concerns with a comedic flow and it all somehow seems perfectly logical. Stoppard is a genius in the best definition of a word that has been cheapened by overuse. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander about not knowing the reason why nor the answers to anything. In that, they are not all that unusual. There are no answers and everything else does come to an unresolved end.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” has been extended through June 28 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE. Tickets are $30-$75 and can be purchased at 202-544-7077 or online here


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