Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
by Tom Stoppard directed by James Bohnen, 2 August 2013, American Players Theatre – Spring Green, Wisconsin

Par Charles Holdefer
Publication en ligne le 19 septembre 2013

Texte intégral

1In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the Prince of Denmark is relegated to the sidelines and the drama centers on the struggles and perplexities of his old schoolfellows, who have been hired by King Claudius as spies. It’s not an easy job, trying to make sense of a supposed madman. A pawn in someone else’s intrigue has every reason to feel paranoid.

2The American Players Theatre’s current production of the play,1 directed by James Bohnen, captures both the pathos and absurd comedy of Stoppard’s vision, where characters cannot grasp the drama in which they participate. They will never be master of their fate and the truth, when it comes, feels less like a revelation than an unexpected drone strike.


Ryan Imhoff and Steve Haggard as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
© Photo by Carissa Dixon

“What a fine persecution”

3Ryan Imhoff and Steve Haggard turn in solid performances in the lead roles of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. Onstage for most of the play, they maintain a high energy level without resorting to antic poses or losing focus.2 Stoppard’s script is brilliant but it is very talky, mixing Elizabethan speech with rat-a-tat rhythms and witty non-sequiturs. In some sequences, the characters barely have a chance to catch their breath.

4In less able hands, the result could be tedious or cloying, but Haggard and Imhoff rise to the challenge. As Guildenstern, the more theoretically-minded of the pair, Imhoff summons a personal vulnerability which renders his heated philosophical speculations sympathetic. “What a fine persecution,” he muses, “to be kept intrigued, without ever having been enlightened.” In response, Imhoff’s Rosencrantz is a mellower creation, with body language and facial plasticity suggesting the sweetness of a Stan Laurel.

5Together, their mission to understand Hamlet—no small assignment, there!—quickly devolves into a quest to understand a courtier’s place in the universe.

 “Stark raving sane”

6These capable lead roles are well-served by the rest of the production. James Bohnen’s direction persuades not with tricky effects but by its consistently intelligent attention to the moment. The pacing is satisfying. For instance, just when the talk of Big Ideas threatens to take over the action, there is a wildly frenetic attack by pirates. (Which is good fun and, in a curious way, restful.) Success is the sum of details.

7The relative restraint of Holly Payne’s period costumes and no-frills set design by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata also contribute to a larger whole. For the third act, which takes place at sea, a single enormous sheet conveys the idea of a ship; otherwise, the stage and upper levels of performance space are left exposed, with large expanses of unpainted, gray wood.

8This exploits one of the natural attractions of the APT’s outdoor “up-the-hill theatre.” The stage seemingly emerges out of the forest.3


The outdoor amphitheater, with Imhoff and Haggard and Jim DeVita as King Claudius
© Photo by Carissa Dixon


Exiting the outdoor amphitheater, John Pribyl as the Player with his Tragedians © Photo by Carissa Dixon

9Early in the performance, the occasional bat or swallow would swoop across the stage and add to the atmosphere. Later, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are at sea, the constellations emerging in the night sky emphasize their puny plight. This is theater space on the grand scale, and it is one of the delights of the venue.

“You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That is enough”

10Stoppard’s text enjoys playing with how even the most banal-sounding conversation can acquire the potency of philosophical allegory. Ostensibly phatic utterances resonate with deeper questions. Though often compared to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is more punning and the quicksilver dialogue sometimes sounds like highly-caffeinated Pinter.

11Above all, it is very humorous. The fleeting appearances of Hamlet (Matt Schwader), Ophelia (Cristina Panfilio) and other principals in Shakespeare’s play, all quite serious, only heighten the effect.

12Some of the funniest moments are provided by John Pribyl who, as the Player leading a motley group of “tragedians,” manages to be, at turns, ingratiating, lascivious, cunning, manipulative and domineering. He is the consummate ham, absolutely untrustworthy and yet able to put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their place.


John Pribyl, a very slippery Player indeed
© Photo by Carissa Dixon

13Will Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seize control of their destiny? Will they understand the meaning of their actions? The Player dismisses such existential musings with simplicity: “You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That is enough.”

14The remark is devastating and, the audience knows, these heroes cannot hope for more. Hamlet is not a world of happy endings. Still, it is striking how enjoyable an evening of perplexity and doom can be4.


1  This review is based on a preview performance before the play’s official opening on August 10.

2  For a podcast interview of Imhoff and Haggard discussing the production, see here: -

3 The American Players Theatre is located in the wooded hills outside of Spring Green, Wisconsin, in an area first made famous by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Taliesin studio and other noteworthy constructions are nearby. Performing since 1980, the APT emphasizes Shakespeare but also makes room for other classics.

4    The Cast
Rosencrantz: Ryan Imhoff
Guildenstern: Steve Haggard*
The Player: John Pribyl*
Alfred Jack Dwyer
Tragedian: Paul Bentzen*
Tragedian: Will Burdin
Tragedian: Ricco Fajardo
Tragedian: Travis A. Knight*
Tragedian: James Pickering*
Hamlet: Matt Schwader*
Ophelia: Cristina Panfilio*
Queen: Gertrude Deborah Staples*
King: Claudius Jim DeVita*
Horatio: Ro Boddie*
Polonius: David Daniel*
Fortinbras: Brandon Greenhouse
Ambassador: Paul Bentzen*
Soldier: Travis A. Knight*
Creative Team
Director: James Bohnen
Voice and Text Coach: Robert Ramirez
Costume Design: Holly Payne
Scenic Design:  Andrew Boyce
Scenic Design: Takeshi Kata
Sound Design, Original Music:   Daniel Kluger
Lighting Design: Michael A. Peterson
Assitant Director: Frank Honts
Music Director: Nick Ehlinger
Stage Manager: Jacqueline Singleton*
*  Member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers
** Member of Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, an Independent Labor Union
†   Member of United Scenic Artists

Pour citer ce document

Par Charles Holdefer, «Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], L'Oeil du Spectateur, N°6 - Saison 2013-2014, Autour de Shakespeare, mis à jour le : 19/09/2013, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer is a Maître de Conférences at the University of Poitiers. His most recent novel is Back in the Game (2012). His article “Bad Shakespeare: Adapting a Tradition” appears in Screening Text, Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Ariane Hudelet, eds., (McFarland, 2013). His fiction and criticism have also appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Antioch Review, World Literature Today, New York Journal of Books and other publications.