Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play was part of Theatre@First’s 10th anniversary. This was only the second play I’ve seen by Theatre@First, but so far I’m not impressed (I wasn’t formally reviewing the other production so it can live on in nameless infamy). Now, it’s not the company’s fault that I wasn’t impressed, they did nothing explicitly wrong, they just didn’t do anything explicitly right either. For me, a boring show is a worse sin than a bad one. There is at least sweet fascination in watching a train wreck. Now, I reiterate, I really don’t blame Theater@First or the director (Elizabeth Hunter), their show is perfect for people who haven’t seen the play put on many times. Community theater, as I see it, does a wonderful job in bringing theater to the masses, and making theater that brings a community together. They make theater accessible with affordable tickets, understandable shows that often forgo high concepts, and local artists. Many people get their start in community theater; it is a stomping ground for young artists, retired artists, and part-time artists. It is a safe space to try new things, but just as each semester brings a familiar crop of plays to undergrads who will experience it as eye-opening, the revelations of community theater become well-trod ground for a veteran audience.
This production of Stoppard’s play appeared to be set out of time. Off-white poet shirts with leather accents abounded, paired with slacks and dress shoes in neutral colors vague enough to blend in without adding any additional flavor. The court was far more Elizabethan with high collars and renaissance fair dresses for the ladies. By far the best bits of costuming were the players for the dumb show – decked out for Kabuki-style theater. Why an eastern influenced dumbshow? Who knows, but it was a bold choice. Also bold was allowing The Player (Johnbarry Green) to invoke a snake by slithering on and off stage for each entrance. Ok, not entirely slithering, that would have been amazing, but he did a snake-tongue thing and wove his head and shoulders in a snake-like wave as he slinked away. I appreciate trying to change up your body style, and studying animal movement is a legit form of character work, but the final product shouldn’t be quite so obvious. I get what they were going for with the “other”-ing of the tragedians and Green being a literal snake-charmer but the line of metaphor was crudely drawn.
Subtle choices can be a difficult task for an inexperienced actor; it’s therefore the director’s job to find specific bold choices that, when put together, draw a more subtle line. And these were definitely fairly inexperienced actors. One of the “two gentleman” (Mike Haddad and Jason Merrill) was vocally stronger than the other, making their back and forth banter a difficult sell. When not double cast, the rest of the characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead can be difficult to get a handle on; aside from the named boys, The Player, and Hamlet (Eric Villhauer), everyone has too little stage time to make a strong impression. On a brighter note, the pirate attack was very energetic and the cast had quite a bit of fun with appearing and disappearing in barrels in act 3. Fun is a good word to describe the production overall… the only one not having fun was me.
At the end of the day, that’s my fault, not theirs. I wouldn’t go to a high school production expecting to be blown away. It feels unfair to pick apart and critique a show whose intended audience was not me. I would have gone to the show because I live nearby, I would have gone if I knew a cast member, or crew member, or if I had worked with the company in the past. I should not have gone to review it.