Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead isn't the cheeriest of titles. And it doesn't leave much in the way of suspense, either. The audience may hold out hope that the title is purely metaphorical, but though playwright Tom Stoppard is happy to turn Shakespeare's Hamlet inside out, he's not about to change plot points. Weston Playhouse's current production of Stoppard's play shows that, whatever the title characters' fate, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a lively comedy that lives up to its reputation as significant drama.
And the play does have a reputation. Originally performed in 1966 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, R&G made the leap to the Old Vic Theatre in London by the next year. That made Stoppard, then 29, the youngest playwright to have his work produced by the National Theatre Company. To date, he's written more than a dozen plays and screenplays. Shakespeare in Love, perhaps the most publicized of his recent works, won him and cowriter Marc Norman an Oscar.
But Stoppard is probably still best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a play now common in high school curricula. It's often read both as an adaptation of Hamlet and alongside Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, as an example of an absurdist and/or existentialist work.
The plot of Hamlet, set in medieval Denmark, provides the framework for R&G. As Stoppard's Rosencrantz puts it, "To sum up: Your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice." Not only has Hamlet's Uncle Claudius killed and supplanted Hamlet's father, the king, but Claudius has also married Hamlet's mother. Upon finding himself in this tricky situation, Hamlet decides buy himself some time by feigning madness.
Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, summoned by Claudius and directed to discover the cause of Hamlet's apparent insanity. Claudius believes the two to be Hamlet's college chums, but Hamlet only upbraids them for spying on him. A troupe of actors, a.k.a. players, arrives, and Hamlet has them stage a play depicting Claudius' murder of Hamlet's father, engendering the line, "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."
Claudius understands that Hamlet suspects the truth and sends him away to be executed in England; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accompany the prince, carrying a sealed letter from Claudius that will ensure Hamlet's fate. But Hamlet discovers the letter and exchanges it for a forged order to the English to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; then he escapes back to Denmark. Much bloodshed ensues and, near the end of the play, an English ambassador enters and proclaims that the directive has been followed: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead."
Stoppard's play brings Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's minor roles front and center. By doing so, he takes Hamlet, a play in which every character knows his place in the scheme of things, and turns it into a play about two guys who can't quite figure out what's going on -- a much more modern story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain on stage at all times. Occasionally, other characters from Hamlet pass through, and the characters speak Shakespeare's lines; otherwise, Stoppard writes in his own modern but rich prose.
Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern have little in the way of memories; they seem to know only that they were sent for. Even their identities are in question; no one else can keep their names straight and, soon enough, they can't, either. As Guildenstern says, "We know only what we're told, and that's little enough. And for all we know it isn't even true." They find themselves caught up in the great wheel of fortune of Shakespeare's tragedy. This is, in short, a game of chess seen from the point of view of the pawns.
But while the major players make their moves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must while away the time. They play games -- often word games -- and make metaphysical speculations about, for example, whether the fact that they just flipped several dozen coins and got "heads" every time means that there's some sort of glitch in reality. They conjecture about what's wrong with Hamlet; Guildenstern pretends to answer for Hamlet while Rosencrantz interrogates. And they have an occasional conversation with the players -- the only other characters with whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are able to interact outside the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Despite the trouble everyone has keeping their names straight, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern clearly have different personalities. Michael Crane (Rosen-crantz) and Eric Altheide (Guildenstern) have an almost Ben Affleck/Matt Damon rapport. Crane, the scruffier, zanier of the two, is dark-haired and wears a black leather jacket. Altheide, the introspective straight man, is clean-shaven with short, light-brown hair.
Stoppard's writing is tight and witty, but in a poorer production it could come off as overly academic or just silly. This thoroughly likable pair of actors delivers the text naturally; their performances are motivated and specific. Even though these characters spend their free time playing word games and hypothesizing about the meaning of life, rather than, say, watching TV, Crane and Altheide show that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are really just a couple of regular guys, trapped by the system and wondering what it's all about.
The leader of the theater troupe (Geoffrey Wade), simply referred to as the Player, is a delightful rogue. He is a wise fool turned pimp; the players, as it turns out, are willing to prostitute themselves in a variety of ways. Since this Player understands the ways of theater and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, in essence, trapped in a play, he is the only one who lets them see the big picture. Wade is never afraid to commit -- his gestures and delivery are often fittingly histrionic -- but he also knows when a mere pause or a raised eyebrow can help a foreboding line do its work. "It is written," he says at one point, "...We're tragedians, you see -- there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means."
Director Steve Stettler also knows when a light touch can be most eloquent. Besides giving the audience ample permission to enjoy this play's comedic elements, he can be credited with requesting a set that was very nearly no set at all. Designer Richard Chambers delivered and even subtly improved on the idea. His bare black platform with a three-dimensional frame of metal pipes creates a stage within a stage. So when Rosencrantz, restlessly contemplating whether he'd rather be dead or alive in a coffin, says, "Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect," the audience might hear an allusion to a theater as a sort of box. Stoppard, after all, like Shakespeare, often lets his characters teeter on the edge of realizing that they're in a play.
Stettler doesn't place too much weight on the Shake-spearean scenes included in Stoppard's text. They are performed clearly and capably, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not trapped in a particularly evocative version of Hamlet. Rachel Kurland's costumes support this: The title characters appear in modern dress familiar to the audience; the rest wear period clothing, often almost gaudily lush against the black backdrop. Thus, despite their outward show of authority, Hamlet, Claudius and the rest look as out of place as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Never mind this play's intimidating reputation; Stettler and a fine company of actors, crew and designers have put on a thoroughly accessible production. Audience members can feel free both to laugh and to come to their own conclusions about what this play is really all about.