Two takes on celebrated pieces of theatre—Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park—still resonate in Toronto.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has confounded more than a few English students, so it’s a comforting thought that even the characters don’t know what a mess they’re in. At least that’s the scenario in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist 1966 comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, on now at Soulpepper Theatre. But rather than criticizing the Bard’s flare for melodrama and ornate prose, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a frank, funny, and extremely well-written exploration of existentialism, fate, and chance.
Stoppard’s Beckettian play focuses on two neglected characters within Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of the Prince of Denmark tasked with discovering the reason behind his strange behaviour (the answer is, of course, that his mother married his throne-seeking uncle and now he’s being haunted by his father’s ghost). But knowledge of the source material isn’t totally necessary to experience the best qualities of R&G: RIP, as it’s merely a backdrop to a buddy act (kind of like the thinking man’s Lloyd and Harry from Dumb & Dumber). The well-matched pair of Jordan Pettle as the fledgling philosopher Guildenstern and Ted Dykstra as the mouth-breathing buffoon Rosencrantz (though if you get them mixed up you’re not alone; they often confuse their own identities) have a sense of camaraderie and comedic timing that’s only bested by their coin-tossing technique. Their rapport with each other—and, at some very entertaining moments, with the audience as well—is crucial in imbuing the absurdity with emotion. Supported by notable actors like Diego Matamoros, Nancy Palk, and Gregory Prest in smaller parts, an estimable Kenneth Welsh as the puppet-master Player, Joseph Ziegler’s in-the-round direction, and Mike Ross’s sound design, Pettle and Dykstra carry the show through a quickfire opening, a sluggish second act, and a haunting finale.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are eternally confused, lost, and at the mercy of other people’s decisions and actions, and we all know how that ends up going for them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a dagger-sharp play that put Tom Stoppard on the map—a cautionary tale for passivists, and a welcome companion piece for Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. It has clearly not dulled with time.
While Hamlet is standard fare for high-school English curricula, the details of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun may be unknown to most audiences (unless they saw Soulpepper’s productions in 2008 and 2010). Thankfully, Bruce Norris doesn’t rely on the Younger’s family drama as the basis for his Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Clybourne Park. Instead, he focuses on the issues of race, gentrification, and status raised by A Raisin in the Sun—issues that made Studio 180’s 2012 production of Clybourne Park a searing hit.
Clybourne Park now returns as the third production in the Off-Mirvish series (which concludes in March with Mary Walsh’s Dancing with Rage). The entire cast is back, as is director Joel Greenberg. The only difference is the venue: it has gone from the 244-seat Berkeley Theatre in Corktown to the 700-seat Panasonic Theatre near Yonge and Bloor Streets, a move that mirrors the arc of the play. Otherwise, the production remains relatively unchanged, with Michael Healey leading a sharp cast that pits racial prejudices from the 50’s against those of modern times. At its best moments, Clybourne Park is painfully awkward, brutally funny, or unspeakably sad. At its muddier points, it can slide into reactionary rhetorical squabbling (which is still entertaining).
As we all know, the real estate market is full of highs and lows. But in this case, the move up the property ladder is definitely a good thing, at least for the many Torontonians who have another opportunity to enjoy this smart satire.