Millennium Theatre Rushes Trhough An Absurdist Classic.
By Shelly McDonald
MILLENNIUM THEATRE'S stage, housed in the Historic "Y," is an intimate space. A setting quite appropriate for a play such as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, whose absurdist approach involves attempting to make its audience uncomfortable.
When they read the play for the first time, many people are struck by the pauses, by the tension created in the first act and which run throughout. While the dialogue is witty repartee, it's the lack of words, those forced silences, that hold us suspended, and prompt us to think about what's been uttered.
However, in Millennium Theater's third Tucson offering, while most of the performances were strong, the actors seemed fearful of those silences, and their performances seemed needlessly rushed.
In fact, the audience was asked to run with the dialogue, sans pauses, for the entire play. The Stoppardesque tensions were gone, and the script was tossed at us like cards at a busy blackjack table, giving little chance for rumination.
The set, a minimalist rendition of brick and mortar, represents well the security of language, one of the ideas Stoppard's writing attempts to tear asunder. And, after the third-act brawl with pirates, ironically, this set proved to be as unstable as language itself, when an impassioned thespian managed to bring down a bit of the wall with his errant sword. Even if it was accidental, perhaps Millennium should consider repeating this moment of comic relief-cum-metaphor.
When it debuted in England in 1966, Stoppard's play was a critical examination of the demise of the British Empire. There was little left for Britain to conquer, and Shakespeare, who'd been the national voice for England, was no longer effective for a disenchanted generation left without clarity of purpose. Thus, writers like Stoppard began to re-examine what the nation's traditional roles had meant. These roles, as played out in the script of Shakespeare's Hamlet, become mutable on Stoppard's stage.
Millennium Theatre Artistic Director John Gunn chooses to set his as the backstage of a Hamlet production because of the limbo inherent in such a place. The idea of Production verses Anti-Production is intriguing.
Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are forced to examine the secondary nature of their characters and the inevitability of death on stage. When they meet up with The Tragedians, actors on their way to Elsinore, The Player explains to them the fated necessity of blood in everything: "I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory--they're all blood, you see."
Ultimately, Stoppard has written a play about absence. And, because of Millennium's lack of absence, I found myself filling in that space at the end. The homoerotic subtext between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern became nearly thematic in Millennium's performance. And so it was that I began to consider what this play might mean for the 1990s.
If Stoppard's England was no longer a viable production, then America's little empire must take the absurdist cake: The rhetoric and blood of the Vietnam era may actually begin to make sense, compared to the utter randomness of HIV. Our lives have moved beyond human absurdity. Given that, then, Millennium's decision to re-stage the beginning and ending of the play brings closer to home the realization of death in the '90s. Gunn's production begins with death and leaves us with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern separated, washed in two blue spotlights: "Couldn't we just stay put?" Rosencrantz demands. "I mean, no one is going to come on and drag us off...They'll just have to wait. We're still young...fit...we've got years...." But there is, pause, no reply, just silence.
"We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we?" These already chilling words are all the more applicable to us today, and their utterance happens to be the moment of strongest, most heartfelt acting of the evening. But, after all, the death scene is everything for The Tragedian.
Millennium Theatre Company should be applauded for its attempts at filling Tucson's empty stages with cogent, timely voices. Though at times this production wavers, it's effective enough to move one to examine what role stagecraft plays today.
Perhaps Gunn should consider slowing the pace a bit. Given the length of the play, this may seem risky, but it's worth the gamble. Maintaining an emphasis on quality rather than quantity, and with a little more time and practice, Millennium will be on its way to producing such thought-provoking plays with more confidence.
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