Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Signal Ensemble at the Chopin, 1543 W. Division
Phone: 773-347-1350; $15-$20
Runs through: May 26
Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are DeadRead more story below....
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
At: Piccolo Theatre at the Evanston Art Depot, 600 Main Street in Evanston
Phone: 847-424-0089; $20
Runs through: May 26
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
After four years of putting big shows into the small space downstairs, the move to the Chopin's first-floor mainstage offers an opportunity to put a big show into a big room, and the Signal Ensemble's enthusiasm is manifest from the first scene of the familiar Shakespeare classic, when Horatio pursues the royal ghost halfway up the castle parapet in an attempt to stay the latter's flight. Later, we see Ophelia seated in a cozy downstage nook, quietly reading, while Hamlet, so distant as to seem miles away, looks upon her and contemplates suicide. And for the climactic duel, fight choreographer Kevin Asselin revels in the acrobatic leaps and windmill slashes only executable in unobstructed arenas.
The physicality required in moving bodies over so huge an area makes for heightened urgency in the dramatic action as well, but director Ronan Marra and his cast are not content to coast on sheer spectacle. Every word of Shakespeare's text has been carefully analyzed for what it reveals about the characters' emotional dynamic with subsequent weight meted appropriately. We never doubt Polonius' fatherly affection for his children. King Claudius is allowed a moment of genuine remorse over his fraudulent ascent to the throne. And when Hamlet rejects Ophelia ( after having overheard the conspirators' plot to eavesdrop on their conversation ) , his visible pain at having to carry out his cruel charade is enough to break our hearts.
The actors' voices fill the cavernous auditorium, exhibiting a precise enunciation to overcome their environment's notoriously poor acoustics, and lending energy, immediacy and even humor to every moment of a narrative that gallops in a headlong rush, sweeping us along in its fury. The running time is three hours with two intermissions, but so efficiently is each second utilized, we hardly notice it.
If you didn't know that Piccolo Theatre's play was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, you might wonder at first if you'd inadvertently stumbled on a production of Waiting For Godot. The stage is bare, save for a lone shriveled tree and two shabby comrades passing the time in word games, logic puzzles and sleight-of-hand tricks. But then a commedia troupe enters ( bound for the Danish court ) ; our two humble heroes don coats cut in exaggerated proportions; and our floor proceeds to both swivel and seesaw.
Whoever would have imagined that re-conceiving Stoppard's oblique look at Shakespeare's tragedy as a clown show would impose upon it a tempo rendering its existential arguments more clear and comprehensible than the pseudo-classical delivery beloved of classroom productions since its premiere in 1966? To be sure, the extensive lazzi that comprises Piccolo's stock-in-trade ( c'mon, haven't YOU ever wanted to see Ophelia cry like a squalling baby? ) diminishes the lightning repartee expected of British drama but, by checking the pace, the stage business permits us time to consider the meaning of what is being said. And while the perils of the two hapless chums whose names no one remembers correctly—bullied by their betters only to be sent to their death wholly unaware of wrongdoing deserving of such punishment—may be slow to win our sympathies, ultimately we are moved almost to tears at their vulnerability in an indifferent universe.