Soulpepper, Rosencrantz & GuildensternTwo of the best productions currently running on Toronto stages share the unique bond of being ballsy enough to tell a beloved play’s story from a different angle. A practice that’s inescapably commonplace on television and often even in film and literature, the spinoff is far from a regular occurrence in theatre. The most famous one is definitely Tom Stoppard’s 1966 masterpiece Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a semi-absurdist reversal of Hamlet that takes the perspective away from the self-absorbed prince and gives it to his wacky, interchangeable, and under-written schoolmates instead. In a providential bit of scheduling coincidence, Soulpepper is kicking off their 2013/14 season with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at the same time as Studio 180’s Clybourne Park is being remounted as part of the new Off-Mirvish series at the Panasonic Theatre, the latter being a lesser-known but similarly clever and risky theatrical spinoff.

Like Stoppard, Bruce Norris sets his story within the world of another play- in this case, Lorrain Hansberry’s seminal story of race and real estate A Raisin in the Sun– and stages scenes that are presumably happening “off-stage” in the original. In Clybourne Park we meet the family who is moving out of the titular neighbourhood, making room for Raisin in the Sun‘s Younger family to move in. Only the character of Karl (a tiny role in Raisin and a bigger one in Clybourne) appears in both plays, but the understanding is that the action is happening simultaneously so that when Karl exits the Younger home he might be coming straight downtown to intrude on Russ and Bev.

The same effect happens more explicitly in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead– a device that makes up half the fun of the play since it’s a reasonable assumption that the audience will know Hamlet well enough to follow along (an assumption that might be presumptuous with the famous-but-not-Hamlet-famous Raisin in the Sun so Norris smartly makes his play extricable from his inspiration). In R&G, Hamlet himself- here a very small role played teasingly well by the great Gregory Prest– enters and exits on his way to and from his most famous scenes while the audience watches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try and make sense of the short bits Shakespeare sent them in for. With the lens pointed directly at them, it becomes quickly clear just how underwritten Hamlet’s plot-moving “school friends” are in Shakespeare’s text, thus lending Stoppard all the material he needs for a meta exploration of art and existentialism. His Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t really know who they are or why they are where they are- let alone what’s happening in the action of Hamlet– because they only began to exist when Claudius first mentions them. By the same token, they have no control over what happens to them, leading to Guildenstern’s final question of whether there was a moment when he could have stopped the ending from coming true (answer: there was not, but it’s still worth asking). In Soulpepper’s endlessly capable hands, the smart, funny, and surprisingly touching genius of Stoppard’s text is perfectly clear. I still think it needs some more paring down- and that opening scene is just too heady to function- but all the qualms I couldn’t get over when Hart House tried this play just don’t exist in The Baillie Theatre at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

The cast is led by the seamless chemistry of Jordan Pettle’s bright Guildenstern and Ted Dykstra’s lovably innocent and easily frustrated Rosencrantz. The impeccable rhythms of those leading performances are matched by the greatness of Kenneth Welsh as the indefatigable Player and his herd of delightfully daft Tragedians (including Paolo Santalucia as the amusingly put-upon Alfred) as well as small but steady turns from Soulpepper legends Nancy Palk and Diego Matamoros as Gertrude and Claudius. The bench-depth of this cast focuses a bright spotlight on the tragic decision not to play R&G in rep with a proper Hamlet (a confounding omission from the season considering the growing buzz around Prest and the particular perfectness of him within this cast with Palk once again playing his mother) but its MVP is undoubtedly the superb Jordan Pettle once again outdoing himself in a lightning-fast roller-coaster part. Guildenstern is a strange role if you try and put him in his Hamlet context, considering Stoppard gives him intellectual considerations surely far beyond Shakespeare’s intention, but Pettle walks that line of clueless thoughtfulness beautifully and delivers some moments of poignance far beyond my emotional expectations of the play.

For a Shakespeare nerd, I’ve never been all that taken with Hamlet. I find it dry, over-examined, and most often placed far too high on the theatrical pedestal. But by turning the curtain around on Shakespeare’s scenes, Stoppard not only gives us a staging of the off-stage pirate attack and the delight of seeing Hamlet attempt to dispose of a dead body, he gives the too-famous text a sense of possibility and gives the little guys something to say. Director Joseph Ziegler and his superb Soulpepper cast give Stoppard everything he needs for his most famous play to live up to its legend.

IMG_9473While R&G directly reverses the action of Hamlet (essentially making every Hamlet exit an R&G entrance, and vice versa), Clybourne Park abandons the Raisin in the Sun timeline at the end of act one and jumps ahead 50 years for its second half. Interesting as act one is as an intellectual exercise and companion piece to Hansberry’s tale, it wasn’t until this second act that Clybourne Park really took off for me. First of all, the second half is simply a lot funnier (and beautifully free of Kimwun Perehinec’s grating attempt at playing a deaf woman); the actors aren’t tied into period and that priceless relatability starts to flood in and raise the laugh rate from occasional to almost unrelenting. The central issue in the 1959-set portion of the play is the same one that Hansberry explored back when it actually was 1959. Norris gives the story a bit more dimension by adding Russ and Bev’s own feelings of alienation from the community, but it essentially boils down to a debate over whether a black family should be allowed to move in to a predominantly white community. Beyond some good performances- particularly from Michael Healey as downtrodden patriarch Russ- there’s not all that much of note in that debate. People who think that anyone, regardless of race, should be able to move in (a point of view voiced most refreshingly simply by Bev)- correct. People who think that black people shouldn’t be able to move in (mostly just Karl)- incorrect. There are some amusing encounters wherein Bev can’t correctly locate boundaries and a charming exchange about the origin of the word “neopolitan”, but mostly act one is a period piece about an argument that was stupid even at the time and a commentary that basically boils down to “that guy Karl from Raisin in the Sun, he was quite the ass, wasn’t he?” .

The purpose of act one seems to be mostly to inform act two, an hour of topical dramedy so riotously compelling that it blew my high expectations out of the water. Bruce Norris has nerves of steel and anyone who thinks otherwise has to either be living in the distant-enough past that no one has ever encountered someone of another race or the distant-enough future that we’re somehow all through with this bullshit. For a white guy writing in 2010, though, Norris dove headfirst into a pile of potential trouble with Clybourne Park and the fact that he emerged unscathed and adorned with prizes is a testament to how brilliantly written the play is. Act two of Clybourne Park is the most awkwardly honest portrayal of modern race relations that I’ve ever seen. The act starts with a lot of polite avoidance from everyone, peppered with great uncouth comedy from Maria Ricossa’s Kathy, as the actors from act one repurpose themselves as participants in a settlement meeting about the changes being made to the house that was earlier sold to the Youngers, has seen 50 years pass, and is now in the new possession of a white couple named Lindsey and Steve .

The always-likable Jeff Lillico oversees the proceedings as Tom (one of his three roles in the production- the others being first more amusing then more poignant) and Healey reappears chameleon-style as a rowdy construction worker prone to interruption. Perehinec erases the harsh memory of her performance in act one with a fantastically skittish take on white guilt sufferer Lindsey but it’s her husband Steve who is the most interesting figure here. Played intriguingly by Mark McGrinder just twenty minutes after shedding Karl’s slimy skin, Steve is the alienating truth teller among the white characters, unwilling to bow to the racial pressuring of Audrey Dwyer’s fierce Lena but generally insensitive in his declarations of such. Dwyer’s character quickly got on my nerves, but rarely because she doesn’t have a point, and her husband, played by Sterling Jarvis, is a welcome voice of reason, most of the time.

It’s a rare play that doesn’t have an overwhelming point of view- each character comes at the issue from a different angle and every one of them is in some way right and some way wrong (at least in act two; Karl is pretty much just wholly wrong). Norris’ writing is razor-sharp and his characters so richly drawn that they are so much more than either stereotypes or subversions thereof but are easily able to draw on said stereotypes in their views of each other and the formation of some really perfect, un-repeatable jokes. One particularly fantastic sequence deconstructs whether an offensive joke is actually funny by batting around its subject matter- is it about black people? about gay sex? about rape?- until everyone has taken a swing and the joke-teller (Steve, of course) wants to crawl in a hole and die. The whole thing is uncomfortably hilarious as it illuminates the defensive, possessive, territorial terribleness that runs through all of us. The way we use each other and guilt each other and act as self-serving, narrow-minded, excuse-making nincompoops- it goes beyond our modern treatment of race, even if that is the lens through which it’s most potently observed. Bruce Norris uses that lens, contrasted with a historical counterpart, to show both our progress and our dissolution and the complicated mess we’re left with.

Together, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Clybourne Park make for a terribly funny, thoughtfully dense, and theatrically literate pairing. Both sport standout casts and brilliant scripts with concise direction by Joseph Ziegler and Joel Greenberg respectively. And both take the texts they were inspired by and elevate them beyond their own infamy.