The play’s the thing at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. Well actually no, it’s two plays that are the thing. From June 3– July 3, the American Coast Theater Company will be performing William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a conflicted Danish prince and his struggle to avenge his father’s death. In conjunction with Hamlet, the company will also be presenting Tom Stoppard’s less well-known tale about Hamlet’s old college chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
The latter is a work of absurd existentialist comedy that is more linear than Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and less abstract and bizarre than, say, Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Driven mostly by dialogue, the plot addresses the topics of identity, fate, existence and reality while poking fun at theatrical concepts and its source material (for example there are frequent references to Hamlet walking around and talking to himself).
The plot is familiar, but it’s turned on its head. The audience follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they answer a summons from the King and Queen, who ask them to figure out what’s bothering Hamlet. Along the way the titular duo run into The Player and his band of fellow Tragedians, poor actors looking for any audience they can get. Dispersed among Stoppard’s original work are scenes from Hamlet, though the scenes are almost always presented from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s point of view. This soon proves to be an interesting angle to the original story.
While the play is a nice introduction to absurdist theater and has a plot that’s generally easy to follow ( there’s also quite a bit of slapstick comedy to break up the heavy dialogue) it isn’t an easy play to pull off. The actors of the American Coast Theater Company step up to the challenge quite well. As Guildenstern, actor Aaron McGee comes across as a man who wants to think of himself as intelligent but struggles to understand the world around him. Katie Canavan captures Rosencrantz’s charming innocence and naïveté. The pair have wonderful chemistry on stage together, and it is easy to believe they are best chums. As a counter to their confusion, Brock Joseph’s version of The Player displays a confident and nonchalant attitude while delivering key moments of true emotion when appropriate. The band of Hamlet characters add humor to the plot, especially Susan K. Berkompas’ increasingly drunk Gertrude and James McHale’s Hamlet, who borders on cartoonish. The actors all repeat their roles on the nights the company performs Hamlet, so it would be interesting to see these actors crossover to the more dramatic story.
Moving the setting from the Renaissance to a more modern time period actually helps capture the timeless nature of the play’s theme while making it seem more accessible. It was just one of many great decisions from the production team, lead by director Christi McHale. A simple and versatile stage, great lighting work and vibrant costumes all contribute to the success of the production. The American Coast Theater Company’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one that shouldn’t be missed, so I feel safe in saying their version of Hamlet probably shouldn’t be either. So head up to Vanguard University and catch them both. June 11th – July 2nd