Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999

Ever sit in the theatre and wonder what that maid who answers the door, the character with three lines and a curtesy, does after she exits? We can imagine what the actress who plays her does, but what does that character do? That is what playwright Sir Tom Stoppard has imagined about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

Last week I was on a rant about the amount of literary “homework” required to even begin to make sense of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real”, and so it is only fair that I begin this review of Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by noting that in order to understand this play you must know a great deal about “Hamlet”. It is not enough to have read it once many years ago in high school, to fully enjoy this play you must know “Hamlet” intimately.

Stoppard’s brilliant 1966 play takes the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who Shakespeare identifies as “courtiers, former schoolfellows of Hamlet”, and looks at the entire action of “Hamlet” through their eyes. It is like seeing that play from the inside out. And in order to understand something from the inside, you must have a good understanding of what it looks like on the outside.

But “R & G are Dead” is more than a theatrical in-joke. It is a look at the loneliness of life, the loneliness of death, and the loneliness of mortality. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely out of the loop. They know little of why they were summoned to the court at Elsinore, and are less than successful at what they perceive their mission there to be. The rest of the cast of “Hamlet” careens past them periodically, but they exist in the limbo between the plot and the onstage action.

“R & G are Dead” is often compared to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, another 20th century play featuring two men caught in limbo waiting for something, anything, nothing to happen. When I first read “Waiting for Godot” I thought it was the funniest play in the world, and indeed Bert Lahr, Robin Williams, and other leading clowns and comics of our time have played in it. I had a similar reaction when I read “R & G are Dead” a few years later. Therefore I was disappointed not to be laughing more when I saw the WTF production last night.

Director Darko Tresnjak, who has give us two very merry free theatre productions in recent years, has missed much of the humor in this play, but he has given us a brilliant concept of this brilliant play nonetheless. He has taken the present tense of the title and given us a rendition of the play starting on the premise that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually are dead. They fear death, they discuss death, but in point of fact they are already dead when the curatin comes up.

Everything except the players’ costumes, (“We are actors. We’re the opposite of people” proclaims Stoppard’s Player) is black. The set is black, the costumes are black. The lights are harsh whites, no trace of color. “Death is not anything…death is not…its the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back” Stoppard’s Guildenstern says at the end of the play. That is the stage environment Tresnjak and set designer Takeshi Kata have created.

Christopher Evan Welch as the large and bumbling Rosencrantz, and Jefferson Mays as the small and tidy Guildenstern are in prefect synch. In the moments when Tresnjak has them move as one I was constantly reminded of Lewis Carroll’s description of Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, who were so alike that Alice had to walk around and read the names off the back of their collars to tell which was which. I don’t think I will ever get the image out of my head of Welch and Mays side by side in that odd stilted Elizabethan posture, waiting, hoping desperately that this might be the moment they are let in on the secret of their existence.

The only other character of any consequence is the Player, who is fully embodied by the talented Richard Kind. His character brings color and life to the funereal landscape of the play, just as entertainment of any variety is merely a way we mortals pass our time on this earth, trying desperately to distract ourselves from our own mortality for a moment.

Reading the credits of the rest of the cast, it is obvious that they are talented and experienced performers. Stoppard doesn’t give them anymore to work with than Shakespeare gives the actors who play his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but all disport themselves well. Jack Ferver is notable for his portrayal of Alfred, the young boy who plays the women’s roles in the Player’s troupe. Tragically downtrodden when he is himself, Ferver’s Alfred comes alive in drag as the Player Queen.

“Hamlet: My excellent good friends. How dost thou, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz. Good lads, how do you both?

Rosencrantz: As the indifferent children of the earth.

Guildenstern: Happy in that we are not over-happy: on Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.”

– Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

Not the very button indeed. Just two indifferent children of the earth drifting along, making the best of it on our way to the grave. That’s all any of us can do.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” runs through July 11 at the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two and a half hours with two intermissions. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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