Empiricism? Is That All You’ve Got?

By on 12 October, 2018 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

By Melissa Tubbs

Tonight we saw the very best production we’ve ever seen at the Cloverdale Playhouse. That’s saying something since we have pretty much been reviewing plays there ever since 2011, when then-Artistic Director Greg Thornton quoted Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead in the epigraph to a Midtown Montgomery Living blog post about picking plays during that inaugural season.

In fact, the production tonight might just be the funniest play we’ve ever seen. It’s also the most profound. Let’s just stop there and say that you absolutely must go and see the Cloverdale Playhouse’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which runs through Oct. 21.

The play itself is a miracle of writing and imagination. The sheer nerve of it, to take two minor characters in one of the greatest works of human literature, and foreground their story is a brilliant innovation. The decision to make their “previously untold” story about, essentially, nothing (the drift towards death) is remarkable.

You don’t have to know Shakespeare’s Hamlet to appreciate this tale, but if you’re familiar, it adds a lot. The Playhouse helpfully provides a parsimonious summary in the program in case you want to brush up on a plot summary. But where Hamlet’s tragedy is archetypical of the form, with all of its wailing and murder and betrayals, the play by Tom Stoppard is a tragedy of a different sort — the regular and everyday kind. Most of us don’t experience the highs and lows of the Danish monarchy, but we suffer nonetheless. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die at the end, for sure. The title of the play tips us off to that much. The murkier question the play asks us to interrogate is how they (and we) live.

All of which seems like it might be a bit deeper than you want to get on a fun night out at the theater. But really, it’s hilarious. We both laughed out loud dozens of times – particularly during the first act. There’s clever wordplay, mental gymnastics amid idle philosophizing, and some damn fine slapstick. It’s a challenging work, but eminently accessible. There are so many layers in the writing that the play meets you no matter where you are – and if you want something more complex, it’s happy to take you there.

Jacob Holmberg and Marcus Clement (as Rosencrantz, or is it Guildenstern?) are simply marvelous. They take some dialogue that is by turns complex and deceptively simple and they make it human and meaningful. Working together, often with long pieces of verbiage, they resist caricature and make their characters relatable. The two manage to convey their simple aspirations without creating simpletons. Their duo is whimsical, but they care about each other, and they both reach into something universal and everyday, even as they are aware of being bit players in machinations larger than themselves.

The supporting cast is also great, especially The Player, who is a kind of parody of the traditional thespian. He’s played ferociously by Mike Winkelman, who adds levity and gravity to the introspective meandering of the title characters. His booming voice and pomposity are partly desperate, partly sinister, and completely captivating. When he and the title characters are talking about acting and audiences, things get metatextually hilarious.

Hamlet’s story isn’t entirely absent, and Sarah Thornton’s directing is perfectly displayed in the way that the “stage within a stage” tells the familiar story of regicide and insanity while keeping the whole room in stitches. Thornton must have also found out some great ways to make the cast gel. There’s real chemistry and the leads definitely give it their all in their performances.

On the heels of hurricane damage and overall fatigue, we weren’t sure that we wanted to go to a play tonight. But we’re incredibly glad that we did. Cloverdale Playhouse still has its fastball, and it may be getting faster. This play is cerebral and hysterical, clever and an invitation to reflection. It’s one that you should absolutely ensure that you don’t miss.




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