Review: Court Theatre Celebrates the Wonder and Terror of Theater Through a Doomed Duo in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Lights go up on a red curtain, hanging ominously over the titular characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as they enact the famous coin-flipping scene that begins the play’s exploration of the meaning of life in a seemingly meaningless and chaotic world. Over the course of the play, the red curtain reappears—as the lordly robe for the leader of a troupe of actors, then dragged across the stage by Hamlet, the man who carries his friends in his wake.

Court Theatre has staged Tom Stoppard’s existentialist tragicomedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, twice before and this time director Charles Newell leans fully into its metatheatrical content. In this staging, the curtain itself is a character and everyone but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern plays a member of the Tragedians. With Newell’s inventive staging, and striking scenic design by John Culbert, the audience gets the impression that everyone understands the nature of their reality but the main duo.

For anyone unfamiliar with the play, Stoppard takes two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and follows their confused, amusing and sometimes terrifying journey to their preordained deaths. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who often are mistaken for each other, wrestle with philosophical dilemmas as they struggle to understand the absurdity of existence.

Nate Burger (Rosencrantz) and Erik Hellman (Guildenstern) make a hilarious and touching pair, with Hellman’s dry wit playing off Burger’s mischievous enthusiasm. As the Player, Lorenzo Rush Jr. commands the stage, flavoring his performance with subtleties that further bewilder his doomed companions. The rest of the ensemble is strong, with costume design by Raquel Adorno that helps them pop out of the stark backdrop.

Erik Hellman, Lorenzo Rush Jr., Nate Burger. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The production is full of detail that suggests a thorough exploration of the play’s complexities. Lighting design is by Keith Parham, sound design by Andre Pluess, Kate Ocker is the stage manager and Marissa Fenley serves as the dramaturg and adviser for shadow puppetry, which adds another layer of metatheatricality.

In the program, Newell makes clear his intention to highlight joy in Stoppard’s work. Newell will soon be transitioning out of his role as artistic director of Court, and the production feels like a meditation on both his and Stoppard’s respective legacies. Despite the play’s ominous twists and turns, there is a lot of delight to be found in the characters’ interactions.

Newell’s emphasis on joy is manifested throughout the play. One of the more victimized members of the Tragedians even appears to have been removed from the script, along with a few other cuts, leaving the play at a tight 95 minutes. Without giving too much away, the production’s version of the ending feels tonally different from the end of the original script and I was left unsure as to whether it was true to Stoppard’s intention or not.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play about questions, from the ones the duo ask each other in games that interrogate language itself, to the ones it asks the audience about the meaning of life. Newell’s production poses these questions in ways that are hilarious and poignant, making it a fitting conclusion to his 30-year tenure.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has been extended through April 28 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets are $56-$88. Running time is approximately 95 minutes with no intermission. Get your tickets here or by phone at 773-753-4472.

Devony Hof is a Chicago-based writer. Originally from Palo Alto, Calif., she graduated from Northwestern  University with degrees in theater and English and has been writing everything from poems to plays to reviews ever since.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Devony Hof

Devony Hof is a Chicago-based writer. Originally from Palo Alto, Calif., she graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in theater and English and has been writing everything from poems to plays to reviews ever since.