Let’s just put this right on the table: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” has been my favorite play for close to two decades. (This year, by the way, is the 50th anniversary of Tom Stoppard winning the Tony Award for it.) In my past life as a high school English teacher, I taught the play more than a half-dozen times, obsessively researched it and have whole portions of the play seared into my brain.
Kentucky Shakespeare‘s Amy Attaway directed a version of this play that will likely be the definitive production to me going forward (except, perhaps, Stoppard’s movie version, because Gary Oldman, of course). Brian Hinds and Gregory Maupin as the titular characters are comedic genius. As my theater companion — an “R&G” newbie — remarked at the first of two intermissions, I would pay good money just to watch those two on stage going back and forth with each other. Or indeed, two-and-a-half more hours of them flipping a coin.
I’m not concerned with throwing the word “genius” around here. Stoppard’s script is in and of itself a work of comedic and philosophical genius. But as with the verbal version of tennis the characters play as a game called “questions,” Hinds and Maupin often are tasked with rapid-fire banter that would put the Gilmore Girls to shame and riffs that require not just good comedic timing … but perfect comedic timing.
And the two of them nailed it — all of it. Comedic genius indeed. However, I may be in the minority, as I believe “R&G” is more tragedy than comedy, and by the end of the play, Maupin and Hinds ripped my heart out.
Let’s face it, the twin feelings of “How did we get here?” and “Where do we go from here?” feel particularly poignant for many right now. By the time Guildenstern — or is it Rosencrantz? — laments, “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, were we could have said no. But somehow we missed it,” it’s hard not to believe that Stoppard was eerily prescient.
Hines and Maupin are supported by a stellar cast, including Kentucky Shakespeare’s artistic director Matt Wallace in a rare turn on stage as the Player, a prophetic, obscene opportunist. The version of “Hamlet” embedded in the story is cast almost entirely with the original 2014 cast of Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer production of the play.
Much of the set design by Karl Anderson is made up of the recently deconstructed C. Douglass Ramey stage house from Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer home in Central Park. It’s not quite put back together, and the top level suggestion of twin gallows is a haunting, subtle touch.
Donna Lawrence-Downs’ costuming is, as always, complicated and interesting. My one beef was that “R&G”‘s outrageous, throw-pillow berets too often obscured the actors’ facial expressions.
This play is full of challenges, both for the actors and the audience. There’s no need to be a “Hamlet” or even a Shakespeare aficionado to enjoy it, but it’s additionally delightful if you are. Be warned that it is long, though, clocking in at just five minutes shy of three hours, hence the two intermissions (which felt unnecessary, actually).
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” runs every day through Sunday, Jan. 8, with two weekend matinees, at the Kentucky Center. Tickets are $25, or $15 for students. Don’t miss this one.