Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

American Players Theatre: “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

On Saturday, August 24th, we made the trip to Spring Green to see APT’s new production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” followed by Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

We had been very excited when we heard that APT was doing both these plays this year, and even more so when it appeared they would do a thing that I had wanted to see ever since discovering Stoppard’s play: to perform the shows together, one after the other, with the same actors in the same roles. This combination appeared exactly once in this summer’s schedule, so we were glad to be able to catch the conjunction.

In Shakespeare’s play, Matt Schwader as Hamlet gives us a very active and vigorous prince, not so much a “melancholy Dane” as a manic-depressive one. The switchover from passive-aggressive to just plain aggressive gave a very interesting emphasis to the play that we had not seen before. For one thing, it become plain that Hamlet is being insufferably cruel to Ophelia (Cristina Panfilio) in the “Get thee to a nunnery,” scene and the interaction that comes after, before the “play,” which markedly contributes to her breakdown after Polonius’ death. Hamlet taunts Claudius (Jim DeVita) to his face, which, given Hamlet’s subsequent murder of Polonius and lack of remorse therefore, makes his uncle seem justified in deeming him dangerous and wanting to be rid of him. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother after killing Polonius and demand that she have no further carnal contact with Claudius, even while he’s preparing to carry away the dead man, shows that Hamlet really DOES have an unhealthy obsession with his mother’s sex life--. This is what we are calling the “Hamlet is a jerk” interpretation, which we thought worked really well and gave the performance great energy.

Another good departure was to make Polonius (David Daniel) a likeable fellow. Certainly, he’s pompous and talks too much, but he’s not an ass or a stuffed shirt. Most importantly, the scenes involving Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes (Eric Parks), demonstrate that they are a close and caring family, with children and parent loving one another, which makes Ophelia’s grief and Laertes’ rage at his double bereavement seeming very genuine.

Yet another clever touch was to have veteran actor James Pickering enact the roles of the Ghost, the Player who plays the murdered Gonzago before Claudius, and the First Gravedigger. The fact that the Player and Gravedigger resemble the murdered King is noticed by Claudius, whose visible starts when meeting them underscore that he, too, is haunted in his way.

DeVita as Claudius is a man running as fast as he can to stay in one place, desperately trying to hold on to by charm what his brother held by merit. Deborah Staples plays Gertrude as a woman who is still young and vital, who has fled from a long and lonely widowhood into marriage with her brother-in-law without really appreciating what she was getting into, or what effect the hasty marriage would have on others. By the time Hamlet returns from his aborted sea voyage, Gertrude seems to have forgotten any misgivings he might have had, since it is high spirits that lead her to drink from the poisoned cup.

That this was a very carefully and intricately worked out production was evident in attention to every detail and nuance. Definitely one of the best Hamlets we’ve seen.

Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is the same play, but seen (and only seen) from the viewpoints of the two minor characters, friends of Prince Hamlet from college, who get caught up in Claudius’ plots and come to a bad end thereby. Ryan Imhoff is billed as Rosencrantz and Steve Haggard as Guildenstern, although, since in Hamlet they are interchangeable, they spend most of the play being uncertain what their own names are.

The play opens with the pair waiting “offstage” as they frequently are. That all is not quite right is made apparent both by their coin-flipping game in which “heads” has come up an unprecedented 90+ times in a row, and the fact that neither of them can remember anything later than the morning, and the morning only vaguely. As the play goes on, we see their brief interactions with the “main” characters, between which times the two try to figure out what’s going on, both in the machinations of the Danish court in general, and with their state of suspension in particular.

Steve Haggard is one of APT’s most able comic actors, and his character is the sharper of the two, raising questions about existence which his partner is frustratingly unwilling or unable to appreciate. Imhoff’s character is genially goofy (in fact, it occurs to me that at points when he is “moseying” around the stage, he is literally walking like Disney’s “Goofy”), with a short attention span and short re-tention span as well. He has too little grasp of the situation to be worried about it until things get too bad to ignore.

The one group of characters that do interact with them on a personal level are the Players, lead by John Pribyl in a wonderfully juicy portrayal. However, the Players, with their “all the world’s a stage” solipsistic viewpoint are of no help to the perplexed pair. After all, as the Player King says, “We’re the opposite of people.”

For people who love theater and acting, the play is particularly funny, not only for the Players’ cynical take on acting and audiences, but because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are acting out the life of bit players: waiting offstage in costume, engaging in desultory conversation or mild amusements, something enough to keep one alert but not so distracted that one misses a cue.

Even without that, the play is wonderfully funny, with both leads handling Stoppard’s witty dialog ably and augmenting it with judicious amounts of physical comedy. It really is a tour de force for Haggard and Imhoff, since they are on stage for 99% of the play. (I suspect this why there are two intermissions, whereas the longer “Hamlet” has only one—because the principals need breaks--.)

The set is exactly the same as the “Hamlet” set, not surprising. I was initially a bit surprised that the costumes (with the exception of Hamlet’s somber black) were not the same, but gradually realized that they are brighter, more fantastic, more artificial, perhaps a bit tawdry—in a word, theatrical. The other characters also pitch their parts up a notch, as well. It occurred to me that perhaps not only was this a reminder to the audience that we are seeing a play about a play, but that it may also reflect Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s view of the world—more dramatic and highly colored, since they see themselves as the protagonists of their own story.

Both productions played to full houses and drew standing ovations. I expect that this will prove a once in a lifetime theatrical event, and we will not forget it.

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Tags: american players, shakepeare, theatre
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