Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can’t even tell themselves apart in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Tom Stoppard’s famous 1960s mashup of “Hamlet” and “Waiting for Godot.”
“Shouldn’t we be doing something constructive?” one of them asks as they shuffle and banter between scenes with Hamlet and the rest of the royals in Elsinore. But they can’t figure anything out — not their roles, and not what’s ailing Denmark’s moody prince. They are life’s bit players, waiting for the principals to sweep through and give them meaning. A body can get killed that way.
The young Stoppard wanted this absurdist excursion to be funny, and the Folger Theatre’s quick-paced and confident new production wants it to skew young. As a laid-back Rosencrantz and a curious Guildenstern, Romell Witherspoon and Adam Wesley Brown swap limp fist-bumps and deadpan punch lines. Costume designer Helen Q. Huang puts them in loose-laced boots and long, funky hoodies; they look and act like gentle slackers.
The counterpoint is Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which Stoppard borrows wholesale as Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and Polonius pop up and execute their familiar exchanges with these two nondescript minions. This is solid ground for director Aaron Posner: He’s Mr. Hybrid. Posner’s an innovative stager of Shakespeare who recently created a “Tempest” with Teller (of Penn and Teller) that featured choreography by Pilobolus and songs by Tom Waits. He’s also a notably radical adaptor of Chekhov (“Stupid F---ing Bird,” “Life Sucks”).
No surprise, then, that the Shakespeare feels like Shakespeare whenever Biko Eisen-Martin jets in as the frantic and vaguely punk-styled Hamlet, or when Craig Wallace and Kimberly Schraf majestically deliver instructions as Claudius and Gertrude. In brief appearances, Andy Prosky creates a recognizably officious Polonius, and the willowy Brynn Tucker suggests a tragically romantic Ophelia.
These classic “Hamlet” bits play out in bright white light that designer Thom Weaver dims to dingy yellow as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left to puzzle out what it all means in their downgrade Beckettian way. Paige Hathaway’s set makes a great attic of the Folger’s Elizabethan stage, crammed with books and skulls and swords. It’s ideal for the play’s waiting-in-the-wings quality and for the backstage rehearsals by the tragedians who barge through.
As the tragedians’ leading player, Ian Merrill Peakes is an energy pill, delectably heroic and swashbuckling. The high-wattage Peakes is a happy action figure, muscular and grinning, which makes the player a witty counterpoint to the stand-around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The swift smorgasbord of death scenes by Peakes and the player’s five co-stars are ingeniously performed, and Posner’s tragedians bring live music and a jaunty attitude to Stoppard’s long scenes on fakery, reality and death.
Is it too jaunty? At times, yes, as when Witherspoon and Romell play word games that are too fast to follow. The pursuit of zippy “Who’s on first?” vaudeville confusion sometimes blurs out the existential unease, and the show isn’t laugh-out-loud funny so much as it is perpetually clever. If your tolerance for the absurd is low to begin with, the swat-swat-swat of verbal volleys here probably won’t convert you.
As a career-launcher for Stoppard, though, it remains astonishing — a youthful prank bursting with theatrical mischief and literary flair. At the Folger, Posner packages this as a quirky, inquisitive, easygoing hang.
By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Aaron Posner. Music composition and sound design, Eric Shimelonis. With Maggie Donnelly, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Stephen Russell Murray, Jacob Yeh and Rachel Zampelli. About two hours and 15 minutes. Through June 28 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets $25-$75. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.