Berkeley’s student-run theater company BareStage Productions closed its two-week run of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Choral Rehearsal Hall on March 12, reviving the popular play with charming, sprightly performances but ultimately suffering from lukewarm direction.
Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is a retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet” from the point of view of the infamous betrayers. Running in parallel to the events of the classic, the narrative structure results in an absurdist, philosophical tragicomedy that locks its characters into a play within a play within a play.
Unaware of their preordained fate as tragic figures bound by preexisting events, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stumble through their journey, wading in and out of presiding Shakespearean scenes as they contend with the unfolding of a story that is far removed from both their control and Stoppard’s.
In a fitting opening, the hungover Rosencrantz (Michael Karezin) and Guildenstern (Matthew Constantino) flipped a coin, landing on heads 92 times in a row as they ponder the scientific improbability of such an occurrence. As they pondered their predetermined fate, the narrative interrupted their musings and sent them on their way.
The prospect of producing a meta-absurdist play that continuously challenges the audience’s perception of reality and explores one’s inability to escape the brevity of the literary classics that the play is simultaneously indebted to but also barred down by sounds like the holy grail of creative potential for any aspiring creatives.
While there was certainly recognition of the creative flare that this juggernaut of a show requires — it would be a crime not to appreciate BareStage’s aptly executed lighting — missteps in setting and design detracted from the quality of the performance.
In reviving a play, one is not tied down to their predecessor’s work. If they are able to create an alternative setting that does not hinder the integrity of the text, then they should by all means do so. But difference for the sake of difference does not an effective play make.
While there is merit in attempting to deviate from previous renditions, the choice of a vaguely 1970s Las Vegas casino setting added little. The stage decorations were oddly disjointed with a mix of grandma-aesthetic furniture and hand-painted casino machines that would have been acceptable on their own but, when paired together, only added to the set’s confusion.
Keeping in mind that this was a student-run production with an understandably limited budget, the prospect of producing a 13th-century-based show may have been too large of an undertaking. Yet, the play itself is built upon the concept of preexisting works limiting and informing its narrative, and even if the plausibility of creating such a set was challenging, the play would have benefited more if it leaned into its limitation and opted for a minimal set design.
Suspension of disbelief is necessary when viewing any stage production, but suspension of logic is hard to shake. In denying the mother text and opting for a setting that is so far removed culturally and narratively that it clashes with the logic of the text, the show was unable to escape from the confusion it inspired. The set was supposed to act as an accent to help ground the audience in the performance, not as a hindrance to the experience.
Despite the less-than-favorable aesthetics of the set design, the actors managed some delightfully redeeming performances. Karezin and Constantino carried the show with consistently humorous and playful moments that balanced the philosophical absurdism with some much-needed lightheartedness, and Megan Liu’s twisted, fourth-wall-breaking harlequin portrayal of the Player was skillfully in tune with the resonating themes of the play.
The shining light, however, was Jay Fernando’s stunning performance as Hamlet. The moment they stepped on stage, one was immediately enraptured with the palpable energy and presence they commanded. Fernando’s spotlit monologue at the heart of Act 1 was by far the most memorable moment of the show. Their rooted portrayal left one wishing they were privy to the silent scenes that unfolded in the corners of the stage as Hamlet floated around cloaked in a pale light.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” was by no means a terrible production. The heart and dedication of the actors and technicians were incredibly potent, and the consistent laughter of the audience confirmed the joy that the show elicited. Ultimately, however, the text offers limitless possibilities to upend the boundaries of the creative space, and thus the real tragedy of the play was its own wasted potential.