Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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Scott Suchman/Studio Theatre
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Editorial Review

At Studio, a Player Steals Show From Stoppard's 'Dead' Heads

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

He's not Rosencrantz. Nor is he Guildenstern. Still, when Floyd King makes his entrance in the supporting role of the Player, Studio Theatre's perfunctory revival of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" suddenly becomes significant.

King is gloriously in his comfort zone here, portraying the grand traveling actor in Tom Stoppard's piquantly philosophical upending of "Hamlet." Wearing a pencil-thin mustache and jacket with the texture of brothel wallpaper, he looks like some itinerant croupier in search of a roulette wheel.

The portrayal is suave, funny and magically wistful in ways that speak to the ontological games at the heart of the play. An impish delight in witty exchange, in reducing refined forms of metaphysics to brisk comedy, is essential to the success of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." In asking the existential question -- what the heck are we all doing here? -- the play, like Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," wants in some sense to make a joke of our knowledge of death, wants to score points off our puniness in the universe.

Making this work requires urbanity, the quality King embodies here and the thing that is lacking in much of the rest of Kirk Jackson's production -- Studio's entry in the Shakespeare in Washington festival, which ends next month. Yes, the playwright's brilliant wordplay can itself be a minefield: Consider the unwatchable 1990 movie version. But what's crucially absent in the Studio revival is something fundamental to the play: a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who can make us feel we're all in this together.

The deficiency in Raymond Bokhour's Rosencrantz and Liam Craig's Guildenstern has to do with chemistry: They don't have much. Bokhour has an idea of a character, a guileless Rosencrantz who trains his wide eyes on anyone who can shed light on his predicament. Craig's placid countenance is more of a problem. He never engagingly takes on the language, or fully convinces us of the cruel irony of the characters' situation.

The situation being, of course, one of the most captivatingly inventive in modern drama. In this 1967 play -- an early breakthrough for Stoppard -- "Hamlet" is reborn as a platform for two of its sorriest marginal characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you may recall, are school chums of Hamlet enlisted by Claudius to spy on his stepson. Their duplicity is paid in kind. After popping up here and there, they go to their ignominious rewards. The ultimate insult is that they don't even get death scenes. Shakespeare does them in offstage.

Still, as the Player observes, "Every exit is an entrance somewhere else." In Stoppard's play, it's the vaporous world of the minor character -- an ethereal greenroom -- into which we enter. There, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the stars, sentient beings who don't realize they are mere characters in a play.

At brief intervals, the major characters of "Hamlet" emerge from behind doors and panels, skillfully devised by set designer Daniel Conway to resemble the walls of Elsinore. These episodes are the only times Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relieved of their virtually ceaseless hand-wringing over what they're doing here and what's in store for them: The lines from "Hamlet" come to them instinctively.

In Studio's version, the scenes out of Shakespeare are unconvincing. It's as if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were not refugees from an alternate reality, but from summer stock. (The "Hamlet" actors are in modern dress, one of several nods in the production to the style of the forthcoming "Hamlet" with Jeffrey Carlson at Shakespeare Theatre Company.) The woodenness evaporates anytime King and his merry band of actors materialize. Just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are pushed front and center, so does the traveling theater troupe (hired by Hamlet) achieve a more prominent part in Stoppard's play. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, the Player has some depth of understanding of their precarious condition, even if he's thoroughly happy treading water in the world of make-believe.

The outlines of the stage even seem to have more definition when King is on hand. (One exception to the lackluster staging: the finely mimed swordplay, to a clever accompaniment, between King and Dan Istrate, portraying a member of the troupe.) You know, though, that things are not clicking when, near the end of the evening, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get hold of a letter describing their deaths, and the shock and sadness the news should bring have no claim on them, or us. If at such a poignant moment the jolt isn't major, then everything that has gone into it feels minor.

Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Marginalized and cast aside in life in the course of "Hamlet," even their deaths happen offstage. Yorick's skull gets more face time than Hamlet's former school chums and current spies.

They don't fare much better when they take center stage in Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," currently being performed at Studio Theatre as part of the Shakespeare in Washington festival.

Even as stars of their own play, R&G remain at the mercy of the plot of "Hamlet," doomed to wait for the action to come to them. How insignificant are Rosencrantz (Raymond Bokhour) and Guildenstern (Liam Craig)? Neither Hamlet's principals nor Rosencrantz himself can tell them apart.

Another affront to the characters comes in the form of Floyd King, who steals the show as the Player King, a leader of a band of prostitutes/tragedians. Whether the Player is sniveling about the lack of an audience or acting out scenes from "Hamlet" and the play-within-a-play "Murder of Gonzago," King provides a vibrant and witty diversion for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the audience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend a good chunk of the play in a void, passing the time by spinning coins and fretting about their lack of control over their own lives. Slapstick humor and witty repartee fill the Spartan but serviceable stage as the duo attempts to parse their plight.

Guildenstern is a bit brighter and more introspective about their existential crisis -- although Rosencrantz does beat him at a word game -- frequently queries his pal, "Whatýs the first thing you remember?" Rosencrantz, for his part, deals with the issue by going a little stir crazy.

As directed by Kirk Jackson, the characters who aren't Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come and go through partitions in the walls, as well as doors in the floor. When Hamlet (Marshall Elliott) appears -- backed by dramatic music, his face a mask of bathos -- the pair sometimes hides from view.

In other instances, when they've been called upon to engage the prince, they are permitted to move in and out of the walls, spouting the necessary "Hamlet" dialogue. When the scenes end, however, they are still puzzled as to their objective, left with only a dim memory of their actions and questions as to Hamlet's madness.

When the duo is sent on their ill-fated journey to England, they are tasked with delivering Hamlet to the king for his execution. We all know how that turns out, and thanks to the Player, so do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Even knowing about their impending doom, can the duo avoid their sad fates in their own play? And will they at least get a proper death scene if they can't?

--Erin Trompeter, Express (May 31, 2007)