When Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was first produced in 1966, the idea of telling the story of Hamlet from the perspective of two minor players seemed truly daring. It's less surprising now, but OpenStage's production of Tom Stoppard's play still yields intriguing moments.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, school friends of Hamlet's, have been sent for by King Claudius to find the reasons for the Prince's melancholy. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not really sure what they're supposed to be doing -- only that they're required to stay where they are -- and they idle away their time in games and wordplay while Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia and Gertrude periodically erupt onto the stage, acting out some major scene or other. We know, as they do not, that they will die before the night is out.
The plight of the two men can be seen as a metaphor for the human condition: In a sense, all of us are placed on earth for reasons we can't fully understand and, seen from this perspective, all of our actions are only games played to pass the time. There's no free will in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's universe, and perhaps not in ours. At one point, Rosencrantz muses on whether, if you found yourself enclosed in a coffin, it would be better to be alive or dead. Dead, he decides, because then you wouldn't be aware of your situation. Or perhaps alive, because someone might show up to rescue you. On the ship carrying them to England, the two analyze their situation in terms reminiscent of Estragon's question to Vladimir: "We're not tied?" They're enclosed, they agree, but within that enclosure they can move about freely. On the other hand, they can't change the course of the ship.
But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't exactly everyman figures; they're representatives of a specific stratum -- the humble and insignificant. The nobles in this play may occasionally find themselves surprised or defeated, but they have the ability to set things in motion, to change the current of events. They make the rules.
In Shakespeare's tragedy, it's never clear how culpable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are. Hamlet sees them as spies for the murderous king, but they may simply feel they're helping out their friend. They share a little guilt in Stoppard's play because they learn that Claudius has ordered Hamlet's execution, and even though Rosencrantz is mildly distressed by this, he's not sufficiently distressed to warn the prince. Still, it's hard to justify the callousness with which Hamlet has them killed. "'Tis dangerous," he observes airily in Shakespeare's version, "when the baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/ Of mighty opposites."
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There are many pleasures in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The wordplay is brilliant and very funny, and so is the continuing discussion about the contrasts between theater and life carried on between the two protagonists and the Player. You get to see Hamlet sideways, which provides a new slant on scenes that have been the subject of countless reverent academic studies. Hamlet may find Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so unimportant as to be almost invisible, but how amazingly silly he looks through their eyes.
Brion J. Humphrey makes Rosencrantz both clever and appealing, and R. Todd Hoven's Guildenstern is a mix of pragmatism and blank incomprehension. (His expression when Hamlet says he knows a hawk from a handsaw is priceless.) There's also excellent work from Ken Benda as the Player. But the tone of the rest of the production is a little off. Hamlet may be absurd when you catch it in snatches, but the actors playing the famous roles should be focused and committed. Unfortunately, only Brian Hughes as Claudius turns in a convincing, authoritative performance.
At one point, the Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about a time when he'd been able to find a condemned sheep stealer and perform a real hanging in a play calling for an execution. It didn't work, he explains: "He wasn't convincing." The joke is that audiences find stage conventions more real than life itself. But this incident also sets up the expectation that the protagonists' deaths will be more shocking than the staged deaths preceding them, and they're not. Still, there's some real talent in this production, and if the cast were more consistent and Judith Allen's direction a little crisper, the show would be a real delight.