‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ spins a colorful, whimsical darkness

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Theatre Cedar Rapids — Friday and Saturday, April 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Theatre Cedar Rapids
Hannah Spina as Rosencrantz — photo by Struttmann Photo.

A good existential crisis is like a good cry: You feel clean afterward, perhaps vindicated. You come back from the edge and can now say, “Oh, that’s over there.” It’s exhilarating, almost. You feel awake and alive.

Unless you’re dead.

Luckily, you can survive through the entirety of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and experience all of the play’s observational angst, without ever meeting your end. Chances are, you’ll even enjoy it.

Tom Stoppard’s absurdist 1966 play revolves around the fate of the title characters, the childhood friends of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the original play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are (spoiler alert!) sent to their deaths at the hands of the English king, when Hamlet catches wind of, and decides to foil, his uncle’s plot to get rid of him. Stoppard takes their ultimate irrelevance (the two are often cut entirely when Hamlet is abridged or adapted) and foregrounds it in his play, which examines the question of what the point really is of any of us existing, anyway.

Theatre Cedar Rapids just closed a production of Hamlet on their mainstage; this kind of theatrical conversation has gone on there before, in their 2011-12 season when The Importance of Being Ernest held the mainstage and Gross Indecency was performed in the Grandon Studio. Next season, they’ll play with that interaction again, with The Crucible upstairs and a newer usage of that metaphor, Vinegar Tom, down. It’s a fun use of resources for actors, theatergoers and production company alike.

Although the chance to catch this show along with Hamlet in one whirlwind weekend has passed, there are still two more opportunities to see what is possibly the most popular piece of Stoppard’s heady oeuvre. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a ridiculous romp, performed with comedic acuity by some of TCR’s finest comic actors.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Theatre Cedar Rapids
Ken Van Egdon as The Player; photo by Struttmann Photo
What stands out most about this show is the magnificent costuming by designer Joni Sackett. In a delightful counterpoint to the subdued wisdom and elegance of her choices for Hamlet, this show is a riot of color and whimsy. The choices for the royal court — for the King and Queen, especially — are evidence of a broader concept probably conceived jointly with director Erica Jo Lloyd. They define the world in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist — one that makes no sense, one that is aggressively inane.

The characters who make up the core cast of Hamlet are, in this play, essentially set dressing. They are context more than content — except, of course, Hamlet himself who (as in his own play) blurs the lines between sane and insane, real and imaginary. Taylor James Foster takes on that role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he is enthralling. He gives an excellent performance, dancing between the lines of narrative skillfully. He is campy without being detached, and includes just enough sincerity to be a little bit sad, and a little bit scary.

Another highlight of the show is Clare Dieter as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. This Gertrude is utterly insane and, in Dieter’s commitment to that insanity, utterly pathetic. Dieter is over-the-top and always completely all-in.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Theatre Cedar Rapids
Clare Dieter as Gertrude, Larry Hansen as Claudius; photo by Struttmann Photo.

The central anchors of the show, though, are the powerhouse performances by Ken Van Egdon as the Player and Hannah Spina as Rosencrantz. The comedic chops on these two are not to be missed. Spina, who has a long resume in the area playing dramatic roles (quite successfully), is truly in her element here. I hope to see her do more meaty comedy in the future; she is born to it. Her Rosencrantz is a frustrating smart-aleck, a bit of a wide-eyed dunce and very much the heart of this intellectual piece.

Van Egdon is a go-to actor for comedy locally. TCR regulars will definitely remember his turn as Thénardier in the company’s 2014 Les Misérables. Unlike that role, where there were moments when his bombast actually could have been reined in a bit, his Player is mature and measured. The Player, like most roles in the show, is over-the-top — but Van Egdon is conservative with his lunacy, finding just the right balance of drollness and delirium.

The show is not all high notes. Although there were several other lovely performances, there were also some actors who seemed less comfortable in their roles. There was not as much nuance to Guildenstern as I would have liked to see; Ben Sissel seemed swallowed by the language of the play at times. He is wonderful as Guildenstern becomes increasingly unmoored, however — as the character begins to lose his way, the actor seems to find it. Despite the mix of skill and experience in the cast, it’s easy to see the steady hand of director Lloyd throughout. Her love for the text is obvious in every choice.

This is joyful and delightful performance of a personal favorite script. It runs for two more performances: Friday, Apr. 22 and Saturday, Apr. 23 at 7:30 p.m. each night. Don’t miss this opportunity to ponder existential philosophy over the weekend — and be thoroughly entertained while doing so. Tickets are $14–22.

Coffee, bagel, Little Village.

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