The Words Are the Thing in APT’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’

The Words Are the Thing in APT’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’
Waitaminute--what's going on here? The Player (John Pribyl, center) is one of the few sources of certainty in APT's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.'

“Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.”

Of all the existential zingers that pepper Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this one, delivered to our two heroes/bit players by the sly and knowing Player (John Pribyl) is the one that sticks out the most.

And we can all agree that nobody’s more uncertain (and seemingly less special) than the two unfortunate courtiers Shakespeare introduced us to in Hamlet. In that play, they’re barely a blip, a pair of minor characters who meet an unfortunate and ironic end. In this one, they’re the befuddled stars, trying (and largely failing) to figure out what the hell’s going on—in both the state of Denmark and with their own purpose and fate.

R&G (playing up the hill through October 5) is American Players Theatre’s first stab at Stoppard, that erudite British playwright, and the production serves as yet more evidence that Wisconsin audiences are willing to embrace playwrights whose ken falls well beyond Shakespeare and Shaw. This isn’t strictly a comedy—although there’s hardly a shortage of funny lines and tableaux—but the issues Rosencrantz (Ryan Imhoff) and Guildenstern (Steve Haggard) end up wrestling are far more serious, even if they still end the play feeling like gigantic cosmic punchlines.  

As you’d expect, the show has plenty of ties to the staging of Hamlet APT is running alongside it on the summer docket. The gray and blocky staging is the same, made all the more lonely and foreboding by the fact that there’s often a lot less going on to fill the space. The same actors who play roles in APT’s Hamlet—Matt Schwader as the melancholy Dane,  James DeVita as the scheming Claudius—reprise their roles, ducking on- and offstage like flashes of light in a darkened cave, confusing our heroes even more. It’s interesting to note the ways the performances of the actors from Hamlet are subtly different and subdued. Schwader, who completely owns the stage in Hamlet, is particularly careful not to overplay things and swipe attention from the stars.  

After watching him steal the show earlier this summer in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I expected Haggard to do the same here as Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz? The two of them can’t even tell), but he takes a more egalitarian touch. He’s adept at scoring a laugh or two off his spaniel-like pal, but any extra mugging and winks to the audience are kept to a minimum, and he’s perfectly content to let Imhoff have his moments in the comi-tragic spotlight.  

Pribyl’s performance provides an unexpected source of electricity. As the leader of a seriously hapless troupe of performers that keep popping up wherever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, he’s a commanding presence. With his jutting chin and piercing stare, his Player provides a delicious and cynical certainty to the chaos, and his portentous line delivery clearly unnerves our heroes and the audience. As well it should.

Those who managed to see both Hamlet and R&G are likely to catch, and revel, in things like the way Guildernstern’s exasperated line “Words, words, words—they’re all we have to go on” echoes Hamlet’s “words, words, words” dig when Polonius asks him what he’s reading. But even if you’re coming to it with fresh eye, you’re likely to appreciate the confidence with which APT handles Stoppard’s whip-smart wordplay. Given that R&G‘s just the peak of the Stoppard summit, here’s hoping APT takes future opportunities to explore it more deeply.