Theatre St. Thomas has opened their production for the Fall 2017 semester; Tom Stoppard’s classic ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’ is returning to the stage since TST’s last performance of it eleven years ago. Put on by St Thomas University students and under the direction of New Brunswick theatre luminary and newly appointed member of the Order of Canada, Ilkay Silk, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ is a perfect showcase of STU’s upcoming theatrical talent.
Taking an alternate perspective of ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ depicts the adventures, struggles, and existential despair of the otherwise inconsequential and interchangeable side characters of Rosencrantz (Sage Chisholm) and Guildenstern (Robbie Lynn), intertwined with scenes from the original Shakespearean source. While still technically telling the story of ‘Hamlet,’ the protagonists’ lack of awareness or involvement in the plot shifts it from a dramatic tragedy rife with intrigue and death to an absurd comedy, still rife with intrigue and death. While waiting for their brief roles to take place, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend much of the play speculating on their own purposes within the chaos of the world, entertaining themselves with simple games and bickering about petty nonsense.
Set up in STU’s Black Box Theatre, the performance speaks volumes of the expert direction of Ilkay Silk. An open central square with the audience on three sides and entrances in all the corners of the room, the Black Box is used to its full potential. Every action and movement is framed with careful consideration. As the audience is looking on from all angles, even the worst seats in the house (few though they may be) have an excellent view, with clear effort to ensure that no one portion of the audience is ever being neglected or directly acted to. Characters suddenly burst on stage from unexpected directions only to leave in another, making Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be the only fixed point in a chaotic, inexplicable world.
In spite of the sizable cast list, the bulk of the play is spent with just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with occasional intrusions by Hamlet (Cameron Patterson) or the Player (Ben Smith) and his theatre troupe of Tragedians. Landing a lead role in their first year at STU, Sage Chisholm makes the most of this extended stay on stage, playing a compelling Rosencrantz. Rather than just playing Rosencrantz, the simpler and more complacent of the two as simply the comic relief to Guildenstern’s straight man, Chisholm makes the character their own with a sense of endearing timidness and anxiety.
In contrast, Robbie Lynn’s take on the more philosophical Guildenstern is bold and energetic, delivering each line with vigour. While this definitely gives an emotional weight in the play’s later scenes as things spiral increasingly out of control, earlier scenes suffer on its behalf. Many of Guildenstern’s lines in the play’s earlier deliberations are dense in clever wordplay and rhetoric, but on a few notable occasions, the energy of Lynn’s delivery overpowered the content of the lines themselves, with the audience having no time to dwell on the complexity of what was said.
Ironically, the play’s scenes from ‘Hamlet’ were some of the most compelling. Although the iconic roles were reduced to minor parts, there was still much to enjoy. From Miguel Roy’s bombastic Claudius to Lucas Gutiérrez-Robert’s exasperated Polonius, the performances and pacing of the ‘Hamlet’ scenes kept faithful to the original source material while embodying the frantic, nonsensical tone of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’
Additional praise should be reserved for Cameron Patterson’s Hamlet, stealing the show with almost every appearance by taking his character’s famous lucid madness to a surreal extreme. Though of hardly a memorable character in the original ‘Hamlet,’ Ben Smith’s portrayal of the Player is also thoroughly enjoyable. Dramatically strutting across the stage, lording over his theatre troupe and squabbling with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Smith flips from smugly superior to petty and aggressive at a moment’s notice, serving as the physical manifestation of the play’s surreality.
Though just a student production of a fifty-year-old play, Theatre Saint Thomas has provided us with their own unique and compelling take on ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’ From start to finish, it is clearly a passionate undertaking by a dedicated company, and is well worth climbing the hill for.
‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ will be playing at the Black Box Theatre on Saint Thomas University Campus from November 22nd to 25th at 7:30 p.m., with an additional 2 PM matinee on the 25th.