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‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 15, 1991

"Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" is one of Tom Stoppard's too-clever-by-half puzzle boxes, an Oxford schoolboy's idea of the playwright as Rube Goldberg with razor smarts and a fashionably breezy hint of Beckettesque mischief.

The play, which Stoppard wrote in 1966 and has directed now -- rather weakly -- for the screen, is "Hamlet" turned on its head. The characters are Shakespeare's but the play is Stoppard's with snatches of the Bard's language and pieces of his plot snaking through. The setting, mostly, is Elsinore, where a pair of ragged travelers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), wander into the middle of the regal intrigue, unsure of their mission or even who they are.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are this great tragedy's most insignificant characters, with barely a handful of lines between them, a pair of measly dramatic pawns in Shakespeare's grand dramatic strategy. The play's action is seen from their obscure, skewed angle, and at first they can't make much of it. Slowly, however, they establish that they are friends of the Prince of Denmark, sent for by the king to discern the nature of Hamlet's distress. This is especially difficult, since they have no recollection of the prince, sane or not -- no recollection, in fact, of anything prior to their being summoned to the castle. What we know (and they do not) is that they are mere actors in a play, nobodies, relegated forever to a sideline view of the action and with no life beyond the proscenium.

Stoppard's joke is that of a playful academic; it's on the level of a gag I once saw scrawled on a bathroom door in the philosophy department at Berkeley -- "Back in a minute. Signed, Godot." It's a brilliant prankster's deconstruction of a literary sacred cow, an essay with a laugh track. What he's making fun of, among other things, is every actor's illusion that his character is the center of the action. There are broader philosophical ramifications, of course, that reverberate beyond the world of the stage and touch on our vain feelings of human significance in the universal design, but Stoppard -- who as the playwright gets to play God in this artificial, "written" world -- is more interested here in game-playing than in philosophy.

At least that's how the play looks on paper; the manner in which Stoppard has set it on its feet suggests something else, though. Or perhaps, staged as they are here, the jokes and the fourth-wall gamesmanship don't seem as funny as they did on the page. Stoppard has "opened up" the play, in the manner that's commonplace for stage works adapted for the screen. But in airing out the piece, he diffuses much of his work's brainy sharpness of focus. "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" is a farcical play on "Hamlet" and should be directed with the lightness and velocity of farce. But Stoppard directs this production as if it were, well, "Hamlet."

Both Roth and Oldman do inspired noodling in their roles; they're buffoons, trying to feel their way through Stoppard's hall of mirrors, and they're immensely entertaining, like Laurel and Hardy in tights. The same cannot be said for Richard Dreyfuss, who gives a brief but irritatingly hammy performance as the Player, the playwright's Pirandellian master of ceremonies. But Stoppard's direction leaves them all stranded; their absurdity becomes too weighted, too heavy. In airing his play out, he's let the air out of it. More than that, he's sandbagged it.

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