Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Princeton Summer Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Jake McCready
Photo by Ogemdi Ude
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead feels as fresh and inventive as it must have fifty years ago when it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and catapulted Tom Stoppard to an international career that continues today. The occasionally baffling, always hilarious play is currently receiving a superb staging by Princeton Summer Theater, a semiprofessional company that proves with this production to be the equal of a professional regional theater operating in New Jersey.

We know who Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are. Or, at least, we're supposed to. In Hamlet, they are presented as sycophantic loyalists to Claudius, who use their childhood friendship with the doomed prince to spy on him. They are the ones no one can tell apart, who are eventually tasked with carrying Hamlet to what should be his death in England. Instead, they meet their own end; the title of the play comes from the famous line of Shakespeare that announces their deaths. Stoppard's farce tells the other side of the story, presenting the men as helpless saps that Hamlet uses to his own ends.

Not unlike its source material, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead puts a great deal of value in the importance of theatricality—represented here by the group of tragedians who will eventually present The Murder of Gonzago at Elsinore. Director Emma Watt's sharp, fast-paced production finds the perfect tone to represent these crucial elements of performance. The tragedians function as a perfectly choreographed unit, led with verbal and physical dexterity by Olivia Nice's Leading Player. Casting a woman in this role, usually performed by a man, is a stroke of genius; Nice foregrounds a sexual energy that permeates the text.

The ditzy Rosencrantz is played with a sweet irresistibility by Billy Cohen, while the more philosophical Guildenstern is sharply etched by Jake McCready. Many critics and scholars have suggested that Stoppard's pair are cousins to Beckett's Estragon and Vladimir; Cohen and McCready make the case for this connection through their warm rapport. I wouldn't mind if they tackle those venerable roles in a future summer season.

Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude and Claudius take the backseat in this tale, but the actors who play them manage to finely distinguish themselves. Matthew Seeley's Hamlet is hilariously brooding, and Caroline Hertz makes much with her brief, overwrought Ophelia. Just as casting Nice as the Leading Player adds layers to the character, so does Ryan Gedrich's drag version of Gertrude. Hamlet's mother was always something of a drag queen, though, wasn't she?

Watt and her team of designers husband modest resources into an involving, transporting production. Jeffrey Van Velsor's economical set perfectly evokes life at Elsinore and the bleak ends to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern travel. And I would love to know where costume designer Keating Helfrich found the Leading Player's fabulous rhinestone-studded leather jacket. The production itself is as creative as the material it presents. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be dead, but Princeton Summer Theater is alive.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues through Sunday, July 31, 2016, at Hamilton Murray Theater (Murray-Dodge Hall, on the Princeton University campus). Advanced tickets ($29.50; students and matinee price, $24.50) can be purchased online at or by phone at 732-997-0205; day-of tickets can be purchased at the box office, which opens 90 minutes prior to each performance.

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