Death by design 

Two shows, one unmistakable theme

It's no wonder that the big questions of life and death unearth a certain amount of anxiety for most everyone. The idea of being interned in the ground for eternity, or facing some unknown afterlife is downright unsettling. In fact, you can think about it too much, can't you?

click to enlarge From left, Jeff Verlanic and Margi Cates star in UM’s production of Hamlet.
  • From left, Jeff Verlanic and Margi Cates star in UM’s production of Hamlet.

But death as subtext underlies the best theater, especially when it comes to the classics. How people wrestle with issues of integrity in life and death's looming presence comprises the fibers of Shakespeare's best tragedies; in Hamlet, the question is, "To be, or not to be...?" In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an existential extension of Hamlet, Rosencrantz asks, "Did you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?...It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead, which should make all the difference, shouldn't it?"

This week, you get answers to both types of questions when the Montana Actors' Theatre (MAT) performs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, directed by Carrie Ann Mallino, and the University of Montana's School of Theatre & Dance stages Hamlet, directed by Greg Johnson.

The latter is, of course, the story of Hamlet the Prince of Denmark, who seeks revenge on his uncle Claudius after he murdered Hamlet's father, stole the throne and married Hamlet's mother. Moral corruption, madness and murder ensue, with Hamlet's soliloquies marking the troubling themes of the story.

Johnson offers a James Dean take on the classic, and it makes sense. Hamlet was the brooding rebel of his time, and Jeff Verlanic plays him with that air, strutting around in a leather jacket and tousled hair. Verlanic plays both victim and victimizer well, but he struggles through the most cumbersome lines, stumbling in the language rather than channeling the proper emotions. That's a criticism easily given to nearly all the actors in UM's show, and predictable for any non-professional Shakespeare production.

Other issues are more problematic. First, everyone seems too emotionally wound up in the first act. It's as though the characters are already anticipating the tragic end. Second, the 1950s soundtrack doesn't connect enough with the play. Guitarist Bobby Gutierrez, dressed like a greaser rock star, scores the show with jazzy interludes and rock flourishes. It works when The Players hilariously enact a play for the court in a muppet-like frenzy, but for scenes with Hamlet, the music needs a darker, more disaffected tone instead of the goofy riffs.

MAT's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has a similar problem with finding the right tone, but here it rests with the actor's command of the script's rhythmic banter. Unlike Stoppard's movie version starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, no long hallways or props of any kind serve as a distraction to the wordplay. And Jared Branden and Richard Davenport, as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively, don't leave the stage for the entire three-hour play, except during intermission. Everything rests on their shoulders as they unwittingly carry out a fool's errand for Claudius and, ultimately, meet their demise.

While watching MAT's production, I missed one thing about the movie version: The way Oldman and Roth appear dazed, how they stammer and pause and let the silence stretch out as they try to remember the context of their lives. In MAT's version, Davenport and Branden hit the ground running with quick lines, as if they are normal people dropped onto a different planet, and it's a less mysterious effect.

Beyond that quibble, MAT's version beats the movie. The Crystal Theatre's spare set design and the lonely traveling bard music (rather than the movie's Pink Floyd soundtrack) sets a better mood. Once Davenport and Branden loosen up and find a groove, their interaction and the wordplay seems natural, and all the more fun to watch.

Death may be a morbid affair, but it doesn't haunt Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. When Rosencrantz laments under the dim lights, "There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no," there's a fleeting moment where you, too, wonder what's in store for you. But then you get to keep laughing.

Hamlet continues at UM's Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center Thursday, Dec. 10–Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 PM, with a 2 PM matinee on Saturday. $18.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Dec. 10–Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 PM. $15/$10 on Thursday.

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