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Hamlet / Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Aaron McGee, Brock Joseph and Katie Canavan

The brilliant playwright, Tom Stoppard, wrote a very strange, absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy in 1966, "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," quite reminiscent of Samuel Becket's 1953 "Waiting for Godot." 

Stoppard, a master writer, took two smaller characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," college mates of the Crown Prince of Denmark, and have left them in a nether world just outside of the action of the play they're in, not knowing exactly what is going on. This includes the fact that Hamlet's uncle and step-father, Claudius, has signed a death warrant for their friend, only to have Hamlet (James McHale) overwrite his name with theirs on it.

Oh, dear. The play opens with Rosencrantz (an able Aaron McGee) flipping a 25-cent piece many, many times, waiting for the coin to fall on the "tails" side. But, alas, it falls every single time on the "heads" side, confusing both him and his sidekick, Guildenstern (Katie Canavan) (neither has a first name -- or perhaps those are their first names and we don't actually know their last names; potential confusion there!). At any rate, nobody can tell them apart (more on that later), so they are both a Shakespearean joke as well as a Stoppardian joke.

It's a witty idea, but with a confusing (or perhaps non-existent) plot, the more one knows of "Hamlet," the better to follow Stoppard's intellectual shenanigans. In director Christi McHale's take, much of the play is about verbal jousting, but her cast, while working hard, couldn't put enough sense into it, although Brock Joseph's Player propelled every scene he was in. 

The one major element that flat-out didn't work was casting Guildenstern as a woman. Canavan has presence and language skills, but having a woman playing opposite a man, even in bright aquamarine, aping a Ginger Rogers style, and having folk confuse them with one-another, was a head-scratcher that just didn't work.

Lola Kelly and James McHale in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead'  (Photo:Susie Sprinkle Hudson)

But watching it (in repertory) with "Hamlet" did allow us much to giggle at. And director Jeremy Aluma's production, confident and competent, did emotionally move those who braved a long day of theatre -- after all, twelve characters die by the ending.

Aluma's main wins were with his casting, starting with James McHale in the title role. Even without notable Shakespearean training (his poetic verse wasn't noticeably missing), McHale did manage to make his Hamlet a man caught between genuine sorrow/guilt/rage and a manipulator of those around him: is Hamlet truly crazy, or is he just faking it? Both, it would seem.

Also up to speed were the sensitivities of the Ophelia of Lola Kelly, the loving admonitions of the Gertrude of Susan K. Berkompas, the power in the Claudius of Paul Eggington, and Ahmed Brooks' finely-hued Polonius. Now, Brooks is African-American and his two children are European-American but it didn't hinder the reality of their performances; contrasting that with the unfortunate pairing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as man/woman. Every idea -- however far-flung -- must be rooted in a play's reality.

Orange County is a far-piece from Los Angeles, and the tiny and comfortable theatre, the Lyceum, is nestled in the campus of Vanguard University, and they did well by allowing American Coast Theatre to enliven their campus with this (slightly) adventurous double-production. The ACT deserves our attention.

The two plays essentially used the same set (designed by actor Paul Eggington), which depicted a semi-destroyed Denmark, but in R&G some extraneous thick ropes not used enough to justify how distracting they were to actor and to audience. But Aluma's reputation, firmly established in non-traditional takes on the classics, has been kept intact with his handling of the non-union cast.

However, this was a difficult pairing and, overall, Aluma and McHale proved their mettle as directors. And one wishes to see more of actor McHale in the future.

"Hamlet"/ "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" ran in rep through July 3, 2016 at The American Coast Theatre, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. For information on upcoming shows, call 714-619-6424.