After staging ten Shakespeare productions over the past three years, The Porters Of Hellsgate are for the first time paying royalties.  Not that they really had to leave the public domain, there still being a few dozen more Shakespeare plays left for the talented young troupe of Bard-o-philes to produce and perform.  On the other hand, having chosen Hamlet as production number ten, their decision to run Shakespeare’s Greatest Play in rotating rep with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (with the same casts no less) was an inspired one.

Though Stoppard’s comedy reconfirmed for me that theater of the absurd is not really my cup of tea, there are enough splendid performances and sparkling moments in it that for a while, I was almost ready to change my mind about existentialist fare.

The concept is a brilliant one—to focus on two of Hamlet’s minor characters, childhood friends of the prince summoned by King Claudius to spy on his irksome nephew.  Shakespeare’s text already gives the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern an absurdist feel, the pair’s virtually identical natures making it hard for other characters to distinguish between them.  In Stoppard’s play, even the pair themselves can’t at times tell who is who.

We first meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they play a hilariously improbable game of coin toss, a game in which heads keeps coming up for Rosencrantz time and time (and time) again. Another scene has the pair playing linguistic tennis as they attempt to carry on an intelligent conversation entirely made up of non-rhetorical questions. Both scenes are Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at its funniest and most accessible. Other theater of the absurd scenes, however, make it easy (at least for this reviewer) to tune out, despite the best efforts of the play’s terrific cast.

Having just seen The Porters’ production of Hamlet, one of the authentic pleasures of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is seeing the same characters (and actors) in an entirely different light.  In Hamlet, Thomas Bigley (Rosencrantz) and Gus Krieger (Guildenstern) already give hints of their deliciously quirky work in the Stoppard play.  Thus it comes as no surprise that both actors do terrific work here, in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and George and Gracie. Neither Bigley nor Krieger misses a beat of Stoppard’s serve-and-volley dialog.

As for scenes coming directly from Shakespeare, they are played, with one exception, by the same actors as appear in Hamlet, but performances are now firmly tongue in cheek.  Charles Pasternak’s Hamlet owes as much here to Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis as to Laurence Olivier. His frantic attempts to spook out poor Ophelia (Taylor Fisher) are played with his pants pulled down to shoe level, and he drags poor murdered Polonius (Jamey Hecht) across the stage like a cumbersome sack of potatoes.  There’s a good deal of the buffoon now in Jack Leahy’s Claudius, and it somehow makes sense in the world created by Stoppard that R&G’s Gertrude (Maja Miletich, in the sole double-cast role) should actually look a few years younger than her son Hamlet.

Micah Cover, whose 1st Player is a relatively minor participant in Hamlet, here shares star billing with Rosencrantz And Guildenstern, and he is excellent.  The traveling players (Angele Dayer, Kevin Kelley, Christina McKinnon, Mark Nager, and Nicholas Neidorf) also have considerably more to do this time around.  Nager particularly has a number of funny bits, and Kelley proves a good sport as the bizarrely contorted Alfred, the troupe’s frequently sodomized female impersonator.  Eddie Castuera pops in in the play’s final couple minutes to deliver Horatio’s curtain speech from Hamlet.

As in Hamlet, the lack of uniform accents proves a distraction.  Rosencrantz and the 1st Player speak American English, Guildenstern is straight out of a BBC costume drama as are (once again) Claudius and Polonius. If there was a reason for this inconsistency, I missed it.

Otherwise, Pasternak’s direction is spot-on, and laughs are due as much to the cast’s razor-sharp line delivery as to Stoppard’s witty, albeit wordy, dialog.

Bigley’s set, Jessica Pasternak’s costumes, and Daniel Keck’s lighting are first rate, as they are in Hamlet.

Ultimately, whether Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is liked or loved will depend on each audience member’s affinity for Tom Stoppard’s particular take on theater.  Though I fall solidly in the “like” column, aficionados of the avant garde are sure to find much to love in The Porters Of Hellsgate’s well-acted and directed production.

Porters Of Hellsgate, The Flight Theatre in The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 10, 2010

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