The doomed courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern together rate fewer than 80 lines in Hamlet, a play that when (rarely) performed in its entirety runs to more than four thousand. Tom Stoppard was only 29 when his existential reframing of Shakespeare’s most complex tragedy from the perspective of two of its least-heard characters announced the arrival of a major playwright, one whose influence has only grown since. His latest, The Hard Problem, debuted in London just months ago. Somewhere in the middle, he found a place for emotion in that glistening, nimble brain of his, writing plays that eclipse Rosencrantz: 1993’s Arcadia for one, which Aaron Posner directed at the Folger six years ago, in a production I’m tired of hearing myself say is the best thing I’ve ever seen there, and yet. Posner has said that when directing that show, he tried merely to put the play on the stage as simply as possible, sans filigree or interpretation.
His gloss on Rosencrantz is more active and less revelatory. The script is the work of a young genius violently asserting his talent before the world, and as a result it gets a little trying, though its brilliance hasn’t faded. Posner has brought the run-time down to a manageable two hours (plus intermission) by speeding through, so it seemed to me, the Hamlet scenes, wherein our baffled protagonists interact with Claudius (Craig Wallace) and Gertrude (Kimberly Schraf) and Ophelia (Brynn Tucker) and the Melancholy Dane himself (Biko Eisen-Martin, who faintly resembles Bruno Mars). I’d love to see that cast do Hamlet in full. And I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of Romell Witherspoon and Adam Wesley Brown, the pair of Folger newcomers who bring the oft-mistaken-for-one-another title characters amiably to life.
Taking in this Rosencrantz is pleasurable, in the way that watching a pinball successfully navigate an ingeniously engineered Rube Goldberg contraption is pleasurable. But it’s not an emotional experience.
Scenic designer Paige Hathaway has dismissed the script’s specification of “a place without any visible character,” constructing instead an attic crammed with props and ephemera from Hamlets past: Skulls, a gramophone, a piano, a model ship, and musty old tomes of—according to dramaturg Michele Osherow—50 different editions of Hamlet, though I couldn’t tell that from where I was sitting. Those can’t-get-around-’em Folger stage columns each support a hangman’s scaffold, and a noose. A sloping ceiling decorated with inverted lampshades reminds us that, well, down is up, and Helen Q. Huang’s capes and cloaks and tunics are all similarly asymmetrical.
The show offers earthier rewards in the form of Ian Merrill Peakes’ swaggering, cocksure Player—leader of the band of wandering (and silent) “Tragedians” (and prostitutes) Prince Hamlet hires to prick at his uncle’s bloody conscience with their production of The Murder of Gonzago. As long as they’ve got some kind of audience for their folio of bloody dramas, they keep encroaching self-awareness at bay.
“Do you know what happens to old actors,” Peakes demands. “Nothing! They’re still acting!” Old playwrights, too.
The play runs to June 21 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. $30–$75. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.
Handout photo by Teresa Wood.