Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--and the production now at the Theatre on Broadway very nearly succeeds in burying them.

Playwright Tom Stoppard takes two of the most ambiguous figures in Shakespeare, Hamlet's school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and gives them a life of their own, creating a story in which the characters exist just outside the action of the original Hamlet. The two friends are sent for by King Claudius to draw Hamlet out and find out what's really troubling him, so several scenes from Hamlet are incorporated into the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live in a kind of limbo, watching the action played out on stage around them without ever having a clear understanding of the events in Hamlet.

Part of the joke is that no one can tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apart--and part of the time, neither can the characters themselves. Stoppard has the two friends wandering about as buffoons, playing word games, trying to understand what the Melancholy Dane is up to and what their lives mean. In the end, they haven't a clue. Death claims them without so much as a whimper on their part, while the mystery of their lives is left unsolved.

"Next time, we'll know better," Guildenstern says. However, as Stoppard points out over and over again, people don't get a second chance. Characters do--they live each time a play is performed. But they will not know better next time: They will do exactly the same things over and over again as often as either Shakespeare's or Stoppard's play is performed.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to grasp the meaning of life and death, but the only one around who truly seems to know anything is a character called the Player (remember the First Player in Hamlet, who "caught the conscience of the king"). Stoppard's Player, who embodies the artist at work, is really a pimp who panders to the audience, claiming that "audiences know what to expect, and that's all they are prepared to believe in." Sort of the decadent Hollywood approach to performance.

At the end of Hamlet and at the end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the stage is littered with bodies. Stoppard appears to leave the door open between existential acceptance of death as final and the idea that life, in some form, is ongoing. But in any case, the playwright implies, if life is not absolutely devoid of meaning, any meaning it may have is so obscure and its end so absurd that we die like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, confused, helpless extraneous characters in a greater drama we don't understand. It's existentialism with a big question mark.

Each and every role in this play requires great subtlety and exquisite timing. Darren Schroader as the naive, dim Rosencrantz is the best thing about the production; his innocence never feels forced. He has some of the funniest lines, and he delivers them with a restrained buffoonery perfectly suited to the role. For some reason, in the Theatre on Broadway production, Guildenstern is played by a woman. But the large role seems unwieldy for Liz Cox, and her take on the character is never fully formed or focused.

Todd Simmonds, a strong presence on stage, unfortunately caricatures the Player, making him loud and obnoxious rather than ingenious and crafty. Tom Puckett makes an eerily malevolent presence out of Hamlet but fails to create the disturbed layers of character the role--even in this truncated form--requires.

Part of Puckett's problem, though, is Stephen Remund's scattered direction. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game of verbal tennis, it takes the viewer too long to figure out what they are doing. There must be visual clues to all the games the pair play to help the audience along. We need to feel the imbecility of the two rubbing up against the laws of physics, aesthetics and language. Instead, the stage movement is often muddy, the actors lost in the mire of words.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a very difficult play to do well, and it requires guts to take it on. But it also takes a great deal of maturity on the part of the actors and the director. As talented as Remund and many of these cast members are, their timing is all off, their energies scattered and their grasp of Stoppard's ideas tenuous.


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