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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Redrum at Fort Fringe

Remaining performances: Thursday, July 23, 10:00p.m. Saturday, July 25, 7:00p.m.

They say: Are you lost? Confused? Lacking motivation? Ros & Guil have your answer: certain death and rhetoric! The characters from Hamlet are back as Tom Stoppard’s classic wit and wordplay explore the one thing that will eventually unite us all: death.

Brett’s take As it happens, I love this play; this is third version I’ve seen. I’ve very much wanted to take in a production that cut back on the high-budget excesses of the Centerstage (Baltimore) one I saw—-especially since R&G Are Dead was the original Fringe gem. Thus I was fully prepared to adore this show; kindly bear that in mind.

This version is cut-down to one hour, the better to fit the modern DC Fringe’s expectations (the original runs 2 1/2 hours with two intermissions). If ever there was a script that seemed like it could bear a few nips and tucks, but really can’t, it was this one; in fact I almost believed it could. For those unfamiliar, the play concerns the nonadventures of the titular secondary characters from Hamlet, oft confused with one another (even by themselves), borne along by a fate they do not understand, destined to have their casual offstage death related in a single line near the end of Shakespeare’s master tragedy. The pair stay on stage the whole time, debating probability, rhetoric, fate, purpose, death, and the nature of waiting offstage for Hamlet to come do his one big scene with them.

Therein we have the first problem with this production. In a play about two men waiting, cutting two whole acts into forty minutes removes all the sense that they’ve actually been waiting very long. The magic of the play lies in watching the pair get tied up in philosophical knots, in seeing a couple of ‘little people’ like ourselves try and make some sense out of the empty gaps of time between fateful encounters; instead, this production comes off like Stoppard’s greatest hits (and not even all of them—-no “We’re actors; we’re the opposite of people!”) sans the connective tissue of gloriously, methodically mounting tension. The pacing becomes more natural in the well-staged final act (on the boat to England), but even then, a most important death scene is rushed.

The other problem lies in the execution. What I had hoped for was a stripped-down approach to the play, in which the words were allowed to stand on their own. However, the performances too frequently undermine Stoppard’s text. This was the third performance of five; stepping on cues and forgetting lines can no longer be chalked up to early-run stumbles—-particularly when the lines being quashed are some of Shakespeare’s most famous (Hamlet says “Except my life” three times, folks). The most egregious offender in this regard—-and the most disappointing, because her tough-yet-weaselly characterization was otherwise so entertaining—-was Prairie Griffith as the Player, who needed at least one reminder of her lines onstage. Likewise, Aubri O’Connor and Tiffany Garfinkle are temperamentally well-cast as the hapless title clowns (I’ll pause to mention that this is an all-women production; the gender-switching neither adds nor detracts), but too often do not grasp that in order to sell Stoppard’s (and Shakespeare’s) lines, they must play them as if they believe what they are saying, even when their characters are being incurably thickheaded. This was evidenced in many of Stoppard’s most reliable metaphysical twisters and laugh-lines (“Eternity’s a terrible thought, I mean where’s it going to end?”) falling flat. The pair was better at selling the emotional lives of the characters and capturing the competitive-but-codependent relationship between them.

Do not get me wrong; for frequent stretches of the play, O’Connor and Garfinkle held me with Stoppard’s wit. The problem was inconsistency. On the other hand, the young lady who claimed to “hate going to theater” sitting behind me loved it; so with that in mind I will venture the See-and-Skip-It-Ifs:

See it if: You’ve no familiarity with the play, and don’t think you could ever sit through more than 60 minutes of wordy theatre.

Skip it if: You want to know what all the fuss with this play is about; or, you do know what all the fuss is about.