Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
July 12, 2013
All of us have existential anxiety from time to time. But no one’s angst is as profound as that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Not only don’t they know their purpose or goal in life — or onstage, for that matter — they’re not even sure of their own names – a which -one-is-which gag that comes directly from the source of this Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In that play, they’re minor characters, former school-chums of the young Danish Prince, sent for by the King to determine the reason for his nephew/stepson’s melancholy and ‘madness.’ Far more quick-witted than they, Hamlet rapidly discerns their ulterior motives and sees that they’re dispatched summarily. Hence, the final-act pronouncement on the dim-witted duo: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
That served as the title and springboard for brilliant playwright Tom Stoppard, who placed the pair front and center in his clever, Tony Award-winning 1966 creation, a groundbreaking modern classic.
Inspired by Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd, Stoppard makes the bumbling twosome tragicomic clowns, like Didi and Gogo in “Waiting for Godot ,” with a touch of Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello.
At the Old Globe, under the dexterous direction of Adrian Noble, they’re exquisite, in the gifted hands of John Lavelle and Jay Whittaker, a wiry actor who recalls the questioning incompetence of Stan Laurel. His character, however, tentatively listed as Guildenstern, plays the schemer and bully to Lavelle’s more clueless partner, his ineptitude expressed in dazzling physical comedy.
Their aimlessness, their inability to act, are also, of course, reminiscent of Hamlet himself.
The Player King, a wonderfully blustery Sherman Howard , tries to give them a few wise tips and pointers – but it’s every man for himself in this topsy-turvy world, where Hamlet is mere background and the main characters’ fate is predetermined.
Even in his early days, as this play attests, Stoppard was a master of dark comedy and ultra-clever wordplay. The philosophical musings on Life and Death may go on a tad too long, but watching the physicality and neck-snapping verbal acrobatics of Lavelle and Whittaker makes the time fly, even with two intermissions.
The outdoor Festival stage, cleverly designed by Ralph Funicello, is framed by an ornate, movable proscenium arch. We are never meant to forget that we’re watching a play, sometimes a play within a play within a play. Snippets of “Hamlet” scenes punctuate the dizzying, often enigmatic action. Deidre Clancy’s costumes are wildly varying and consistently striking – marvelously ragtag for the motley Players and gorgeously crisp and Elizabethan for the courtiers.
The first act is side-splitting hilarious. As the protagonists get more lost in their self-perpetuating quagmire, things get a bit more serious. But only a bit. This is one irresistibly fun and funny production. If you’re lucky, it’ll even provide a few existential insights.
‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ” continues, in repertory, on the Old Globe’s outdoor ‘Festival Stage,’ through September 26.
©2013 PAT LAUNER