Glean What Afflicts Him

As the first offering in its Shakespeare-themed season, Willamette University Theatre presents Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the classic meta-theatrical comedy (tragedy?) by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard takes two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school friends—and flips the perspective so that they become the central characters in their own play.

R & G Are Dead is a theatre person’s delight. It is mostly a collection of in-jokes about Hamlet, mashed up with a collection of in-jokes about Beckett. (I cracked up as Guil—or was it Ros?—counted off iambic pentameter on his fingers.) For the uninitiated, the play will be more of a challenge, but there are still plenty of jokes and philosophical questions about the nature of free will, performance, and observation.

As expected at Willamette, the performances are strong. William Forkin struggles believably with existential angst as Guildenstern (the smarter one). Pentacle fans will recognize Maxwell Romprey, previously seen in The Aliens, as Rosencrantz (the less smart one). The pair have excellent rapport and keep the banter going nimbly. Taylor Jacobs puts the foil to their quest as the Player King, with all appropriate bravado and over enunciation.

Willamette’s flexible black-box stage is set up in-the-round, with audience seating only two rows deep. The arena configuration is not only a rare treat, but it’s also a perfect arrangement for a play that is about the nature of performance. Susan Coromel’s directing adeptly keeps the actors moving; one never feels that the view is blocked.

I have just two minor criticisms. The speaking tempo is frequently too fast, and some words are lost. In a play such as this, that is a problem. Secondly, there are some parts where the existentialism rather does drag on, and that is Stoppard’s flaw. If you already have tickets to this one, you will enjoy it. If you don’t, you are out of luck; closing weekend is sold out.

Tell Me About the Rabbits, George.

Across town, Pentacle Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men, directed by David Ballantyne, is an excellent depiction of a group of lonely, broken people searching for a better life. The play is John Steinbeck’s classic story of two migrant workers—one with a severe mental disability—just trying to get by during the Great Depression.

The actors here form a strong ensemble, and performances across the board are authentic, engaging, and moving. Michael Collins’ Lennie uses typical “Lennie voice,” but his performance is touching and sympathetic—well worth getting kicked out of an acting class. Jeff Baer’s George is the enabler half of this co-dependent pair, and his pain, frustration, and love come through clearly. Kudos as always to Hannah Patterson as Curly’s Wife, who brings humanity to an often misunderstood role.

This production marks Ballantyne’s directorial debut, but you would not know it. Pacing is excellent, and the tension is kept taut throughout. Ballantyne uses Pentacle’s thrust stage as a thrust (at least part of the time), a technique that many of Pentacle’s seasoned directors often overlook. One quibble: Anything downstage and on the floor disappears from line of sight, which made one important moment hard to see. Set, lights, and especially sound contribute seamlessly to the story telling.

However, the play itself is not without flaw. With a cast of nine men and one woman who does not even have a name, this is a rather spectacular failure of the Bechdel Test. And the play’s ultimate treatment of mental health and disability is problematic to say the least. The play’s status as “a classic” does not excuse us the responsibility of thinking critically about these issues.

Nevertheless, as a tragedy and a human drama, the production is excellent. Of Mice and Men runs through October 22.