Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the 1967 Tony Award-winning play by British playwright Tom Stoppard is presented in all its absurd glory at South Pasadena’s A Noise Within theater in a new production that retains the play’s original strikingly human tone while giving it a contemporary and effectively gritty redo.
The play originally premiered in 1966 at the Oregon Shakespeare festival and has found enthusiastic audiences since. Taking its title and inspiration from Shakespeare’ tragedy Hamlet, Stoppard expands the enigmatic characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet’s two best, but ultimately doomed, friends who periodically pop in and out of the original but never are given much stage time. Stoppard latches onto this lack of information and makes it his mission to delve deep into the psyches of these overlooked characters – affectionately nicknamed R. & G. by Shakespeare fanatics. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent to deliver Hamlet to the King of England with a letter ordering his death, but the two unsuspecting men end up killed themselves. All we ever hear of R. and G. following Hamlet’s escape is that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”. Stoppard seeks to supplement this mystery and presents the real story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; how they died, yes, but also how they lived and just exactly what it was like living in the shadow of the haunted and self-centered Hamlet.
Actors Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, ground the heady production, tossing Stoppard’s spitfire wit back and forth like ping-pong balls and never miss a beat. Mahaffy plays the confused Rosencrantz with empathy and humanity, drawing the audience to him as the half of the duo who doesn’t understand the world he has been thrust into and simply wants to go home. This is especially helpful with Guildenstern’s Beckett-like overuse of the theoretical and metaphorical; wonderful to listen to but difficult to follow. Goldstein as Guildenstern is thoughtful and moody, obviously more in charge than Rosencrantz, but ultimately, just as lost. While Mahaffy’s Rosencrantz is comfortable and accessible, Goldstein’s Guildenstern is magnetically watchable; with his slinking gait and eyeliner, Goldstein’s character seems constantly to balance on the edge of insanity, threatening that it is only a matter of time before he snaps entirely.
The characters surrounding Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are deliciously disturbing. Wesley Mann is The Player, the eerily jolly leader of a motley theatre group that includes the tragic Alfred, a young boy dressed in the filthy gown and ash-caked wig of a fallen aristocrat, played with painful humanity by Sam Christian. The Player’s grimy, excessively patched overcoat seems a cross between that of a circus ringmaster and Dickens’ Fagin. Disturbing but loveable, disgusting but hilarious, Mann is very watchable as The Player. His indirect theatre references caused the actors in the audience to snort deliriously into the cuffs of their jackets in recognition. Costume designer Jenny Foldenauer brings a Dickens-like aura to her costumes; ashes, fleas, and soot seem to coat the torn gowns and tattered ruffs. It is as though she has taken Hamlet in its original glory and polished the chimney flue with it. The design of the show, sooty and urban, gives it an unnerving, apocalyptic feel and this is especially effective paired with Stoppard’s mind-twisting dialogue. We are never let to feel quite comfortable; how ever well the audience may know Hamlet, the show doesn’t give anyone the chance to snidely explain the ending to their seatmate. Nothing is predictable or certain and this is what makes it such an enticing show.
The rest of the characters come directly from the original Hamlet, and we are only given glimpses of them. Elliot’s direction and Frederica Nascimento’s stage design, which has characters from Hamlet passing almost unnoticed through curtains and pieces of the set behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who remain downstage most of the play, give us the sense that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hiding in the wings only catching glimpses of a much greater drama taking place offstage. In this way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given back what Shakespeare took away from them; maybe they aren’t tragically mad like Hamlet or chillingly beautiful like Ophelia but we finally get to know who they are in all their mad glory.
Language is obviously important in the play. While most characters directly from Hamlet are given dialogue straight from their original source and speak in the language of the time, the play is Stoppard’s entirely, and the dialogue given to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, The Player, and The Player’s troupe rings more of contemporary absurdist writers like Edward Albee than of Shakespeare. The first act is strikingly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s absurd, tragicomedy Waiting For Godot, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern closely resembling Beckett’s strange, unplaceable characters Estragon and Vladimir. Beckett’s cruelly humorous Pozzo, tramping onstage and disrupting his character’s uncertain world bears a striking resemblance to The Player and his troupe whose disruption of Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s world causes them to question their seemingly solitary existence.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are of another time, certainly, but their fear of existence and their innocent search for meaning in an uncertain and frankly confusing world reaches far beyond their Shakespearean world. Stoppard’s characters speak to the human experience but especially to the Postmodern generation who live in a world that is unstructured and often uncertain. We might fumble a bit with Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s dialogue, but their emotion comes through with blaring clarity. We can’t help but gasp a little over how little human life has changed.