Boston’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,’ emerges a tragicomic masterpiece

October 18, 2019

Last Wednesday, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing a wonderful performance of Tom Stoppard’s tragic comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Going into the show, I had very little knowledge about the show (which originally premiered in 1966), save for the fact that it was “Hamlet” from the perspective of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I also was aware that the show had two ten minute intermissions, which means three acts, which could mean a long show that is difficult to sit through. However, my somewhat negative expectations were completely blown away by the end of act one. Not only is the show the opposite of a slog, it is actively and effortlessly entertaining both from a comedic and dramatic perspective.

While “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” follows the plot of “Hamlet,” it shows the story from the perspective of Hamlet’s old friends who, in case you have never read the Shakespeare masterpiece or the title of this show, die offstage. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters. The show does touch upon some major scenes and the key plot points of “Hamlet” but often does so through a comedic lens, due in large part to the framing of the story.

The show is told as if it were backstage during a production of “Hamlet.” During the play within the play, the titular duo try to figure out what in the world is going on. The set also changes between acts: Act one is mostly about what the duo is doing before they come on for their first scene, act two swaps the view from backstage to onstage and in act three, the set resembles the deck of a ship. These set changes not only mark different acts, but the journey of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their inevitable death when they disembark their vessel. In fact, the entire show has a morbid tone. After all, we know the duo will die from the title. This dark tone, however, is juxtaposed with the lightheartedness and levity of the many comedic elements  throughout. 

One of the most entertaining aspects of the show is, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The titular duo share a plethora of recurring jokes, like a coin that always lands on heads or the fact that neither they nor anyone else can remember which one is Rosencrantz and which one is Guildenstern. These gags are made even more hilarious by the actors’ performances. Alex Hurt, who plays Rosencrantz, and Jeremy Webb as Guildenstern, both give a dynamic and entertaining performance as two bros in way over their heads. With Webb’s Guildenstern playing an almost hyperactive instigator and Hurt’s Rosencrantz giving a more laid back and reactive performance, they both convey a deeply hilarious and loving friendship between two characters who, let’s face it, don’t get a lot of development in the show’s source material. 

Another comedic aspect of the show comes from its self-aware humor. Due to the nature of the production and its set being a sort of play within a play, a lot of jokes break the fourth wall. In fact, at one point Rosencrantz actually touches the illusionary fourth wall between the audience and the actors. The majority of these meta jokes originate from the Tragedians and their leader known as The Player, as portrayed by Will Lebow, who are another group of minor characters from “Hamlet.” Since they are actors playing actors, naturally they give a lot of meta commentary about being an actor. They also appear in every act, and while they are hilarious when they first enter, towards the end of act three, their presence becomes a bleak reminder that the titular duo are themselves actors in a story where their fate has already been decided. 

This brings up the most compelling aspect of the show: how it blends its comedic moments into a tragic conclusion. Every joke, including the fourth wall breaks, adds to the morbid tone. Even the gag where no one knows which is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern becomes tragic, when the two characters realize it doesn’t matter because their story has already concluded. This realization results in heart-wrenching dialogue about the nature of existence, death and fate. In the source material, Hamlet switches a letter intended to order his execution with one condemning the duo to death upon reaching England. In Shakespeare’s version, we don’t know if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see the letter. But in this performance, not only do they read the letter for their own execution, they actually continue the journey to their deaths. This brings every comedic moment in the show into question. Each time the duo acted like forgetful fools going along a story they don’t control becomes a pair of desperate men clinging to any source of direction—even one leading to their deaths. The inevitably tragic nature of the show is best summed up in one of its final lines: “Well, we’ll know better next time.”

Going into the show I wasn’t expecting much, but the show is undeniably funny and captures a tragic and rare perspective of two minor characters from a well-known story. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is a thought provoking show that asks its audience the questions we all wonder: Why are we here? And where will it end?

Menu Title