Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hart House)

Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.

An expertly acted refreshing look at a done-to-death Tom Stoppard play at Toronto’s Hart House.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of those plays you’re supposed to see. It features prominently on a list which often feels like dietary advice: “The Canadian Association of Theatre Nerds recommends three servings of Arthur Miller, four of Shakespeare, two of David French and one Tom Stoppard as part of a balanced theatrical diet.”

These shows have been done to death. They’ve had all the life sucked out of them. Directors and actors struggle in vain to find a fresh take; a new insight; some way of turning it on its head. Most fail.

Matthew Gorman’s Hart House production succeeds.

While the cast essentially sticks to the script, there’s a discernible twist in the air. Benjamin Muir’s Hamlet is impish, over-the-top and absolutely hilarious. David Tripp and his Tragedians don’t merely upstage the main cast, but steal scenes from each other, to great effect. Even the small parts—Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius—have plenty to sink their teeth into, and they do!

The leads (Jim Armstrong as Rosencrantz and Andrew Knowlton as Guildenstern*) may seem somewhat bland by comparison, but the play is stronger for it. The gentlemen do a fine job of capturing confusion, desperation, fear and dread without allowing it to become maudlin or melodramatic. They are the purest part of the show, and while they get some moments of slapstick—befitting the Laurel & Hardy setup—they still deliver the emotional core of the show with memorable precision and skill.

Ming Wong’s costumes provide the company and the staging with a madcap, yet suitable, mishmash of cultures and times: Hamlet in rhinestones and leather pants; the Tragedians as a depression-era travelling circus; Gertrude in high Spanish regalia, complete with the fiercest headdress worn on a Toronto stage since the Lion King.

The set, by Stephan Droege, is skewed, broken and perfect. The use of different heights allows for some excellent staging business, while the flexibility of the setup creates opportunity for some brilliant lighting effects. (The end of Act 1 stands out as particularly inspired.) I’d also like to give a hat tip to Stage Manager Mary Keenan, who has the cast running at a bang-bang-bang pace: not a moment is wasted.

But above all else, the fingerprints of a talented director are all over the production. A few choices are disappointingly safe, but this is completely overshadowed by those which are both shocking and refreshing. (Ophelia, in particular, gets one of the best exits I’ve seen in years.) Above all else, he’s started with a shopworn, overdone play, and—without breaking the script or butchering Stoppard’s words—produced something watchable, enjoyable, insightful and hilarious. It’s a tremendous achievement for Matthew Gorman and Hart House, and a strong opening to the 2012/2013 season.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is playing at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until October 6, 2012
– Shows run Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm. Check website for details.
– Tickets are $25, $15 for students or seniors.
– Tickets are available
online, or through the box office at 416-978-8849.

Photograph of Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton by Daniel Di Marco.

*Or is it Jim Armstrong as Guildenstern and Andrew Knowlton as Rozencrantz Rosencrants Rosencrantz? (Will this be on the exam?)