Tom Stoppard’s metatheatrical work Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was one of his earliest major successes. Premiering over four decades ago, this alternate perspective on the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet hit on such themes as death, fate, solitude, and other existential matters, and did so with humor and élan. No wonder it brought him the first of his three Tony Awards for Best Play. What a relief it is then, to see Cat Parker’s well-executed rendering of this masterpiece at T. Schreiber Studio’s Gloria Maddox Theater. Eric Percival and Julian Elfer are the title characters, sent for by the newly crowned King Claudius, though they have little idea as to why. The two pass the time with an epic coin-flipping contest, which, in the absurd fashion that pervades Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz wins 92 consecutive times. This rejection of the laws of probability suggests to the two that they may not be entirely in a world of their own free will, but perhaps “within un-, sub- or supernatural forces.”
This tongue-in-cheek storytelling style pervades the whole show. Though the action portrays what takes place offstage during Hamlet, knowledge of that show is helpful but not mandatory. Claudius manipulates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Prince Hamlet, to spy and report on him. Hamlet, however, in a rare act of follow-through, outsmarts them and sends them to their deaths. From their vantage point, however, all that they can see is how insane Hamlet’s ranting seems.
Later, after the two characters witness “The Murder of Gonzago,” Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves on a ship that is supposed to take the prince to England with the troupe that staged the performance. During this voyage, however, they are ambushed by pirates and lose their prisoner before resigning themselves to their fate.
And while Stoppard elevates his title characters to lead status, he also comments on how ultimately insignificant they remain. They exist in their own universe, unable to make sense of much of the world around them, and occasionally confuse their names, suggesting just how interchangeable they appear to audiences. At various points throughout the play, the two characters hit upon sage philosophical truths, only to dismiss or forget them as quickly as they first devised them.
Rosencrantz is blessed by two dazzling performances. Percival and Elfer are outstanding, giving energetic, rich and touching performances and demonstrating a terrific grasp of the cadences of the language (Page Clements is credited as the dialogue coach). Percival makes Rosencrantz a lovable dolt, while Elfer makes Guildenstern the more Type-A of the duo. He devours the role with relish.
Of course, the entire ensemble is to be commended. Erik Jonsun is The Player, a traveling actor, and delivers a stunning turn that hits all the comedic, melancholic and sympathetic notes for which Stoppard’s play so effortlessly strives. Additionally, the other performing actors who make up the acting and troupe and pivotal characters from Hamlet (mere minor characters here, of course), are uniformly excellent.
Parker opts to stage Rosencrantz in the round, which contributes to the sense of incomprehensible chaos the leads share, and moves the dense show quite fluidly. Karen Ledger’s costume design also deserves mention, as does Michael Hagins' authentic fight choreography.
Stoppard used Rosencrantz as a bit of a smokescreen, a palatable way to ask tough, defining questions about the art. What makes a character? What does it take to tell a story adequately and convincingly? The answers are all here in Parker’s production, proof that the playwright’s show is aging just fine.