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April 14, 2011

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Worthy piece by East West Theater

IMAGINE flipping a coin, and only ever getting heads. Imagine being beckoned to assist your master, and then being betrayed. Imagine being marooned on a ship, as a tempest blows and pirates maraud around you. Imagine not knowing who you are, or indeed if you are.

This is the world of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," currently staged by East West Theater.

As amateur dramatic performances go, Michael Jones' staging of Tom Stoppard's play certainly made for an entertaining evening. The power of the prose guarantees enjoyment, as it did for the chiefly expat audience; the wit, the philosophical absurdities, the sensational placing of life's great questions in the irrelevant and misguided hands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a work of genius that rightly shot Stoppard to critical and populist acclaim when it was first performed in Edinburgh in the heady 1960s.

The characters and plot are taken from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," although Hamlet and other key characters from the play are mere plot devices as the focus is brought onto the play's most insignificant characters. This play is more heavily influenced by Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" than Shakespeare.

Bringing it to life in 21st-century China falls on the shoulders of the Emily Feist (Rosencrantz), a seasoned Edinburgh Fringe Festival performer, and Rebecca Jane Miller (Guildenstern), who is soon to be appearing in "In the Office" on International Channel Shanghai.

Both were compelling as they battled bewildering circumstances to grasp understanding of the events unfolding around them. The occasional loss of diction can be excused on the first night, as in the main they took hold of these challenging roles.

The duo begins on stage by flipping coins; their fate is down to a turn, and there is little they can do to prolong or even disrupt the flow of events. Exchanges between the two leads were well drilled, and there was a fine tempo to their performances.

The most memorable moment came as Rosencrantz delivered a musing on a box; "Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect." Wittgenstein would have been amused; Rosencrantz was boggled by the ramifications while Guildenstern looked on hopelessly.

However, it was the leader of the players, Owen Bell, who stole the show with a refined sense of timing and an assured comic presence on the stage. Bell is a Shanghai regular on the theater scene, and it shows.

This is Jones' fifth outing as director, and his debut show in Shanghai. Taking on a challenge of this nature is testimony to his ambition and skill; a play that requires a quiet subtlety and barking surrealism of its cast, and a controlled madness from direction. Thankfully this has been achieved and amateur dramatics or not, this is a worthy piece. His next play should be eagerly anticipated by Shanghai theater-goers.

For over five years the East West Theater has been putting on English plays for Shanghai audience. The theater may be a little off the beaten track but it's worth the journey to see "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" this weekend as they attempt to become masters of their own destinies, but like us all, end up being dragged along in the current of greater forces.

Date: April 15-16, 8pm; April 17, 7pm

Address: 3/F, Bldg 100, 200 Longcao Rd

Tickets: 150 yuan in advance, 180 yuan at door (tickets can be reserved at Cottons, Bulldogs, or directly with East West Theater

Tel: 1356-4102-955


With Chinese subtitles


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