Turn Hamlet, with all its ponderous existentialism, inside out and you have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The three-act play by Tom Stoppard, first staged in 1966, has its way with the pronouncements of Shakespeare, making it still a diverting evening of theater and an edgy companion to the Old Globe’s 2013 summer festival that includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice. For those who haven’t seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, familiarity with Hamlet is crucial. That not everyone in the crowd is will be apparent when you notice that some theatergoers are laughing while others are not. But enjoying Rosencrantz … mostly requires a willing acceptance of the absurd and an appreciation for metatheatre -- the “play within the play.”
If that all sounds like too much work, fear not. The comic performances by Jay Whittaker and John Lavelle (it’s never totally clear who is Rosencrantz and who is Guildenstern) are spiced with keen physicality, priceless double takes and a rhythmic banter that is damned near Abbott and Costello-ish. Whether turning over coins (heads or tails?) to test the laws of probability, as they do in the first scene, or questioning the inevitability of death sans their friend Hamlet’s melancholy, this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make a delightful, complementary pair.
Besides tossing coins and ruminating, R&G are witness to (and at times participants in) scenes from Hamlet, with, notably, Lucas Hall as the Prince of Denmark and Triney Sandoval bellowing as the nervous King Claudius. On hand during these scenes to pierce the theatrical fourth wall is a camera crew complete with boom microphone, capturing the action. It’s no wonder that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little clue about what the hell is going on around them, why they’re where they are, and what their role in the scheme of things is supposed to be.
A troupe of Tragedians, led by The Player (the stentorian Sherman Howard), teases our heroes throughout, as if they need any further messing with their heads.
For a three-act play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead unfolds efficiently. With director Adrian Noble at the helm, the action never wanes.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.