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'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' by Tom Stoppard

The Neptune Theatre production now onstage at The CAA Theatre, Toronto

The Neptune Theatre production now onstage at The CAA Theatre, Toronto

Joe Szekeres

“A Voice Choice."

"Led by the glorious performances of Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ becomes one of those productions a theatre lover must experience. Highly respected Canadian theatre artists in supporting roles accredit this master class in acting. Do not miss this one.”

Tom Stoppard's sharp, thrust-and-dagger dialogue sounds oh-so-good in Halifax’s Neptune Theatre production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I never realized just how good it truly sounds.

Avail yourselves of this opportunity.

It’s the world of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ Although you don’t have to be thoroughly familiar with the story, here’s a quick recap. Hamlet’s father has died under suspicious circumstances, possibly murder. The late king’s brother, Claudius (uncle to Hamlet), is now ruler and has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Hamlet is morosely sickened by what has happened and plans to ‘attack the conscience of the (new) king’ and entrap Claudius to confess the murder. Claudius asks Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to follow Hamlet, speak with him, and then report on what has been said.

In Stoppard’s play, the story is told from the perspectives of the central characters Rosencrantz (Dominic Monaghan) and Guildenstern (Billy Boyd), who, as the title indicates, end up dead. The script veers in and out of the ‘Hamlet’ tale when the central characters are not on stage.

There’s an amusing, sometimes esoteric take on the Bard’s tale in Stoppard’s, at times, playfully absurdist script. For one, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to remain ahead of Stoppard’s Hamlet (Pasha Ebrahimi), and that becomes a task because the young man is cunning and intelligent. Additionally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playfully confuse their own identities and use the other’s name to identify themselves.

Jeremy Webb's direction remains intelligent and astute because he ensures the characters are continuously grounded in their motivations and intentions. He always keeps the audience on its toes as we watch the machinations play out in front. Webb’s staging becomes a chessboard. Throughout the many discussions from all the characters on the meaning and understanding of reality, their existence, and life and death, the characters listen intently and move with purpose and reason because of what was just said.

Set Designer Andrew Cull has captured a striking visual look on the CAA stage that is continually moving. Free-flowing curtains, a few furniture pieces and moveable designs of metal intertwining risers become reminders of where the story occurs, whether on board a ship or in a theatre. Deanna H. Choi’s sound design caught my ear during the pre-show. There’s a tremendous sense of unease with the eerie reverberation sound resonating throughout the auditorium. Kaelen MacDonald’s costumes are effective replicas of the era that caught my eye, especially when lit by Leigh Ann Vardy’s subtle lighting design of brightness and shadows. What was a nice touch? Along with the opulence of some clothes, I could see the dirt and tear, mostly Monaghan and Boyd's blue and green costumes.

Performances become master classes in acting delivered by theatre artists who showcase their talent with enthusiasm and élan.

That’s what makes this opening production a Voice Choice.

Monaghan and Boyd remain in complete synchronicity with each other akin to the central characters from ‘Waiting for Godot.’ At times, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are confused about who each of them is or how they got to the situation in which they find themselves. It is their reaction to this absurdity that provides laughter. Monaghan’s Rosencrantz is the more physical of the two, while Boyd’s Guildenstern is philosophical and chatty. The rapid rat-a-tat delivery of their dialogue remains continually at a breakneck speed. When they speak slower during heightened dramatic moments, the intensity becomes heightened.

For example, at the top of the show, Monaghan and Boyd play a game of heads or tails with a coin. Watching the back-and-forth banter between them about statistics and probabilities of landing the coin in a specific pattern is terrific. Their reactions and intentions are impeccably timed for a particular effect, whether comic or dramatic. There’s more of that throughout the nearly three-hour running time, so sit back and relish two actors who know what they’re doing and do it well.

Remarkable supporting performances by a gelled ensemble of renowned Canadian theatre artists play The Tragedians. Michael Blake is a towering Leading Player who participates in this same delicious back-and-forth banter with the central characters. Walter Borden becomes a regal and majestic Polonius. Raquel Duffy’s Queen Gertrude is snappy. Helen Belay’s Ophelia is sweetly confused. Pasha Ebrahimi effectively captures a brooding mystery about his Hamlet, one that veers very close to the edge of snapping but never crosses the line.

And Another Thought: I’ve never seen the 1990 film, so it merits a look sometime soon. In his Programme Director’s Note, Jeremy Webb writes that Stoppard encourages every production of the play to approach it fresh and not treat it like a museum piece.

That has been accomplished in this Neptune Theatre transfer. Magnificently. Gorgeously. Beautifully.

With this stellar cast now onstage to April 6, please do anything you can to get tickets.

It is a moment in the theatre not to be missed.

Running time: approximately 175 minutes with two intervals.

Photo credit: @stoometzphoto

‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ runs until April 6 at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto. For tickets, visit mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333.

David Mirvish presents the NEPTUNE THEATRE production of
ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Jeremy Webb
Set Designer: Andrew Cull
Lighting Designer: Leigh Ann Vardy
Sound Designer/Composer: Deanna H. Choi
Costume Designer: Kaelen MacDonald
Movement Director: Angela Gasparetto
Stage Manager: Christine Oakey

Performers: Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Mallory Amirault, Helen Belay, Michael Blake, Walter Borden, Drew Douris-O’Hara, Raquel Duffy, Pasha Ebrahimi, Jonathan Ellul, Santiago Guzmán, Jacob Sampson, Erin Tancock.

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