It’s one of the great turn-the-tables moments in theater: Two hapless courtiers destined for bit roles in the immortal “Hamlet” get their chance at stardom. The pair still meets an untimely end, as the title so assuredly informs us in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” but at least they get top billing.
The 1966 Stoppard play is often paired in a season with a production of “Hamlet,” which is the approach Woodward Shakespeare Festival took this summer. The company is more successful with this “spinoff” than the original Shakespeare, which did not impress me in June. Director Jacob Sherwood shows a fine spark and insight as he and his cast traverse a dizzying array of wordplay, physical comedy, absurdist philosophizing and intense existentialist introspection.
The outdoor park setting probably isn’t the best setting to attempt such a challenging play – it feels like the kind of show that demands a close, intimate, or even claustrophobic space – but there is a homespun charm and strong ensemble spirit to this intellectual chew toy. It made me think and laugh.
As the play opens, it might not be rotten in the state of Denmark, or whatever the purgatory-like setting our two title characters find themselves in, but there’s definitely something weird going on. How else to explain the coin that Rosencrantz (an amiable and convincing Renee Newlove) keeps flipping, 92 times in a row, to turn up heads?
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Guildenstern (a chipper Karina Rodriguez) muses that supernatural forces may be at work. While the two characters in the real “Hamlet” may seem one-dimensional and interchangeable, Stoppard gives us a closer view – and distinct personalities, which Sherwood nurtures as director.
Soon a traveling theater troupe enters the scene led by the Player (a strong Greg Taber), dressed in a shimmery cape, who scrambles the situation as his actors scurry and preen. (In one of my favorite moments of staging, Taber lifts up his cape like a vampire and then lets it fall, revealing his players behind him chattering like chipmunks.) This is the same troupe, we discover, that performs the “play within the play” in “Hamlet,” but this time we get an expanded version.
Stoppard both pays homage to “Hamlet,” as he provides glimpses of the major players marching their way through that narrative, and lovingly pokes fun at it as well. (Just why, we’re asked, does Claudius take over as king when Hamlet’s father dies? Shouldn’t the son be next in line to the throne?) This time around, Woodward’s Hamlet (Broderic Beard) gets to reprise his role, often to great comic effect.
There are weaknesses in the production. While I’m impressed with both Newlove and Rodriguez’s confidence and onstage chemistry, they miss some chances to truly mine the material to the appropriate intellectual depths. (Sherwood’s fiercely minimalist design for the show doesn’t help matters any.) Rodriguez also had a tendency to rush some of her lines on opening night.
And I’m still a little confused by the ending, which seemed truncated to me. It’s my understanding the final scene ends with a scene from “Hamlet” itself announcing the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The way Sherwood staged it – unless I missed something or there was a glitch – seems to change the philosophical bent of the show, shifting from the universe of “Hamlet” to, well, something bigger and more undefined.
Still, I found a lot to ponder in the show. Particularly death. Not just for R&G, who just might be dead already, but for all of us. We live blithely on, denying the inevitable, even when “Dead” is in the title.
Intriguing, too, is the idea of art vs. the real world. According to the Player, all he – representing art – can ultimately deliver is blood. But what if art lives “forever,” or at least as long as the Western canon survives, as Shakespeare’s work seems destined to do? Taking that even further, what if Stoppard’s work lives forever, too, as an accompaniment? When you’re a character in a play, does death only truly come when that play is forgotten?
For the answer, maybe I’ll just flip a coin.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
- 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 10
- Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, Woodward Park
- www.woodwardshakespeare.org, 559-927-3485.
- General admission is free; $10 reserved tickets in the first two rows are available online. $5 per car park entry fee applies.