Hamlet unstopper'd

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Brian Cronin
Women's Shakespeare Company (501-1986)
Abingdon Theatre, 432 W. 42nd St., 4th Floor Non-union production (closes Nov. 18)
Review by Ken Jaworowski

Ah, if only the Mets would have seen the Women's Shakespeare Company's production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Then they would have learned a lesson in winning teamwork. At the Abingdon Theatre, each of the 11 actresses performed with skill, but as a group they proved themselves especially strong and adept. Sure, at over two-and-a-half hours the play sometimes felt as if it stretched into extra innings, but overall this was a show - and a team - well worth watching.

Although Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead uses Hamlet as a focal point, the play is much more than Shakespeare's story retold by two minor characters. In between watching the Danes traverse the stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern muse about the nature of the universe, brood on the meaningless of existence and humor themselves to ease their boredom. Tom Stoppard's duo are as much Abbott and Costello as they are Estragon and Vladimir, and their dialogue mixes the hilariously trite with the acutely philosophical.

Presenting the play with an all-female cast might at first be perceived as a gimmick, but no gimmick can survive long under Stoppard's grueling wordplay. Happily, this cast thrived throughout. As Rosencrantz, Kate Sandberg had charm to spare. Her clueless character enjoyed the silliest of lines, and she delivered them with wide-eyed glee. The frisky Ms. Sandberg also proved herself an adept physical comedienne, reveling in the slapstick while careful never to let it run away from her. As Guildenstern, Clayton Dowty appeared tentative at first, but soon eased into character. Her Guildenstern, a man vaguely aware that he is not quite aware, held an intense combination of frustration and concentration. Both actresses handled the intertwined dialogue with ease; their game of "questions" - a scene of 60 back-and-forth lines that hinges on precise timing - was a winner.

As Hamlet, Cheryl Dennis was the center of almost every scene she was in, as every good Prince of Denmark should be. Ranging between Shakespeare's dispirited Hamlet and Stoppard's over-the-top one, her performance was consistently enjoyable. Ellen Lee, as the lead player of the group of tragedians, shone, but generously helped the others shine even brighter.

"It would be easier to do it very plain, because the play has an edge to start with," Stoppard once said of his play. Director Brian Cronin had much the same idea, allowing the dialogue to impress rather than cluttering the bare stage with props or ploys. Owen Hughes's lighting was terrific, opening up the room yet suggesting an underlying bleakness.

The sharp wordplay of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps the wittiest since The Importance of Being Earnest, can be hazardous ground for actors. Yet this intelligent company exuded confidence. Even when Stoppard stopped to philosophize (with such tremendous skill, he still can't keep himself from at times rambling), the actors rarely let the play grow cold. Without a doubt, this was one winning team. The Mets could learn a lot from them.

(Also with Missy Bonaguide, Gwyneth Dobson, Sarah Gifford, Ginny Hack, Heather Mieko, Diane Neal, Kelly Ann Sharman.)

Box Score:

Writing: 2

Directing: 1

Acting: 2

Set: N/A

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2000 Ken Jaworowski