Anytime you flip a coin and come up with 92 straight heads, you’re in another universe, quite possibly the one of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.”
That violation of the law of probability isn’t the only thing “out of joint” here. Rosencrantz (John Lavelle) and Guildenstern (Jay Whittaker), minor courtiers to the Danish throne, find themselves on the road but they can’t recall why. Like Alfie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flounder around, waiting for someone to tell them what it’s all about.
A strolling Player (Sherman Howard) and his troupe of Tragedians come along to remind them they’ve been summoned to the court at Elsinore. Meanwhile, the players (who seem to specialize in mayhem: “Blood is compulsory”) offer (for a price) diversion with hints of sexual possibility along with the definition of tragedy: “the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily.”
At Elsinore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in the middle of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” asked to “glean” what afflicts the prince (Lucas Hall). They are, of course, hopeless at it, and will eventually find themselves accompanying Hamlet to England, where their fates will be sealed.
The play careens between snippets of the Bard’s play (a movable proscenium is trundled onstage for these scenes, and a “film crew” follows the actors) and a wild stream of strange and comic philosophizing offered by the prince’s old buddies, whom they analyze this way: “Half of what he said meant something else and the other half didn’t mean anything at all.”
Stoppard took the theater world by storm in 1966 with this, his first commercially produced play. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is an existentialist romp that allows no attention lapses and asks questions it never answers.
Director Adrian Noble handles the huge directorial challenges of this low-action, high word-count play in ways that play up the visual possibilities of the word-drunk script.
Lavelle and Whittaker’s often interchangeable (and frequently confused) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern present terrific existential foils for each other. These are characters seemingly lost in a hostile world they neither understand nor control, Guildenstern’s grumpy and perplexed philosopher balanced by Rosencrantz’s somewhat lighter approach.
Howard’s Player is a hoot, a theatrical pimp whose wonderfully ragtag troupe is ready to spring into action at the drop of a few coins.
Existentialism isn’t funny unless you’re Tom Stoppard. But in the end, as Guildenstern says, it’s “words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
“Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” plays through Sept. 26 in repertory with “The Merchant Of Venice” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm through July. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm in September. Check website for specific dates and plays.
Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.