Celebrated for his erudition and wit, British playwright Tom Stoppard never went to college. Although he was admired for his stagecraft, his only experience in theatre was as a newspaper drama critic. His "overnight success," Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, took years before an Oxford student group did it in 1966. It nearly failed, until rescued by praise in a newspaper column. Audiences, tipped off that it's a comedy, came and laughed. Then Kenneth Tynan (another drama critic) got Laurence Olivier and the National Theatre interested, and Stoppard has been a major playwright ever since.
Stoppard's m.o. is as a clever wordsmith, but it's not just the vocabulary or even the ideas -- it's the rhythms. They make his plays appealing to actors (for the movie version of R&G, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth kept exuberantly running scenes even after they'd been filmed) and especially appealing to read. That's fortunate, because Stoppard's plays aren't often available to see.
But there were new dimensions suggested by seeing the current College of the Redwoods production of R&G. As on the page, it's still an "elsewhere in Elsinore" story while Hamlet is center stage. It's still Samuel Beckett meets Beyond the Fringe (or perhaps Firesign Theatre -- Stoppard was writing its prototype while in a traveling fellowship program with Firesign's Peter Bergman). But on the stage it's also Laurel and Hardy as scripted by Oscar Wilde. There's the same fabled existential situation of two lost souls swept along in an indifferent world. But it occurred to me that there's also a class aspect: They are powerless middleclass gentlemen caught in the struggles of royals.
Not that this is necessarily the CR version's viewpoint -- it's just a product of seeing live actors perform it. The mesmerizing words reveal structure and metaphor. These two characters are so gripped in the logic of fate, of formal tragedy, that time itself is disappearing, like an episode of Doctor Who (already a BBC hit in the '60s when Stoppard started writing for that TV network). The correspondences and refractions with the Players who entertain at Elsinore are more robust on stage than on the page.
Except for some edited (or dropped) speeches, and some funny physical business eliminated, CR honors us with the whole play. Daniel Lawrence provides a simple set and Kjeld Lyth directs a straightforward production. Lexus Landry as Rosencrantz and Charlie Heinberg as Guildenstern are a physical contrast, and they use this for character as well as comedy. They keep up with the relentless dialogue, and make its humor and rhythms sing at certain moments -- even in the third act, remarkably, for this play takes stamina to perform.
The other key character is Dmitry Tokarsky as The Player, who provides crucial connections. Aaron Thiele as Hamlet and Jesse Chavez as Polonius make the best of their fewer moments. Other roles are played by Jonathan LaValley, Levi Goldin, Morgan Johnson, Raylene Henderson, George Thorpe, Laurene Thorpe and Amanda Wood. Denise Ryles and Rosemary Smith provide the impressive costumes.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays one more weekend, April 1-3 in the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater.
Visiting actor and playwright Carolyn Gage brings her one-person show, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, in which "the medieval heroine is a lesbian runaway who has returned from the dead to share her experiences, and her passionate and radical perspective, with contemporary audiences," to the Arcata Playhouse for one night: Friday, April 1, at 8 p.m.
As local theaters compete for actors and audience, naturally they schedule their plays all at the same time. So after a relatively motionless March, we have the avalanche of April.
Opening on April 7 is Shakespeare's Othello at North Coast Rep for a four-weekend run ending April 30. More about that next time.
Also opening April 7, at 7:30 p.m. is the popular HSU 10 Minute Play Festival, which runs for two weekends in Gist Hall Theatre. It features seven student-written, directed and acted plays with the usual mix (and collision) of comedy and drama, of new takes on universal themes and up-to-the-second topical treatments. This year there's a comedy about a guy addicted to milkshakes from Toni's in Arcata. I've written more about the festival on HSU's dime at HSUstage.blogspot.com.
Mad Dog and Big Guy Are: "In the Box" opens a three-night run at Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre on April 7. Two Dell'Arte grads are the Under the Table clowns who enter the stage and do their best to leave, despite obstacles. Showtime Thursday though Saturday is 8 p.m.
South Pacific opens April 8 at Ferndale Rep for a four-weekend run closing May 1. South Pacific is a big, colorful musical -- its most recent (and award-winning) New York revival boasted a cast of 40. It's probably unique for being a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical play based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (by James Michener), and its Rodgers and Hammerstein songs quickly became standards in the 1950s. Its World War II story about U.S. armed forces personnel (especially lots of sailors) and the natives of a South Pacific island won praise for confronting racial issues, but in more recent years there have been complaints about racial and gender stereotypes. So navigating through all of that while preserving its romance and high spirits should be an interesting creative challenge.
And this is just the beginning of the April avalanche. Stay tuned.