Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most enduring antiheroes, was famously obsessed with being, or not being—as well he might have been, given the way his world had been turned upside down. But in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard doesn't ask for our sympathy for the moping Prince of Denmark. The focus instead is on two of Hamlet's university friends, who are drawn into the strange events in Elsinore and perpetually bumbling around the edges of the drama, unsure as to what they are supposed to be doing and kept in the dark as dark currents swirl around them. In the Milk Can Theater Company's production of Stoppard's 1966 play, action is the name of the game. Whether it's the titular characters tossing coins (85 heads in a row) or the bawdy, dissolute troupe of tragedians comporting themselves around the scaffolding that serves as a set, the characters are a mass of restless energy. Director Julie Fei-Fan Balzer shows us a northern kingdom where almost everyone is frantically trying to outrun, outfight, outscrew, or outmaneuver his own fate.
The play presents us with two very sympathetic leads. Rosencrantz (Avery Clark) is boyish and playful but with a pensive, melancholy streak; he hides his heartbreak over the inevitability of time passing with games and action. Guildenstern (Walter Brandes) is wiry and warier, brooding over the twosome's situation and how they got into it.
But the show belongs to the troupe of Players, under the direction of their wry and lascivious pitchman, the Player. Accompanied by drumbeats and noisemakers and juggling and swaggering, these Players of the "blood, love, and rhetoric school" fill up the stage. Playing kazoos and wearing codpieces, they offer entertainments both over the top and under the covers, if you catch their drift. Encountering the two courtiers on the road to Elsinore and again within the castle—as well as on later voyages—the Players are a maelstrom propelling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on their way.
Played by Zack Calhoon, the Player is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead's beating heart—the lewd, earthy, and surprisingly wise voice of reason. He and his troupe of fallen tragedians know all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune has to offer. They—and apparently only they—realize that in their world, they are all just following the path they were set on. As the Player says, "We are tragedians, you see? We follow directions. There is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good, unluckily. That is what tragedy means."
Also, and by no means should this be discounted, the Players do the most engaging and enjoyable re-creation of Hamlet's play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago, that I have ever seen. Great use of kazoos.
The title of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead being what it is, the fates of the two hapless courtiers from Shakespeare's most famous tragedy should come as no surprise. But it's a testament to this production that when the third act begins to wane and it begins to dawn on the characters (and the audience) that death is how things will end for these two, the effect is heartbreaking.
Just as in Hamlet, Stoppard's play ends as Fortinbras enters to announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. But the playwright does pay his two hapless characters tribute: they are no longer lost in the carnage of a royal bloodbath, and the audience can shed a tear for two innocent souls who followed their paths to unhappy ends.