Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in a Black Box

06/09/2011 2:00 PM |

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Cora Weissbourd
Produced by Big Rodent

Tom Stoppard once likened giving an explanation of his play to passing through customs: "'Anything to declare, sir?' 'Not really, just two chaps sitting in a castle at Elsinore, playing games, that's all.' 'Then let's have a look in your suitcase, if you don't mind, sir.' And sure enough under the first layer of shirts there's a pound of hash and fifty watches and all kinds of exotic contraband. 'How do you explain this, sir?' 'I'm sorry officer, I admit it's there, but I honestly can't remember packing it,'."

Unwittingly or not, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Stoppard manages to pack banter with metaphysical density to rival Beckett or Shakespeare. The tragic notes in his work bleed through in almost every clownish gag, reflexive bits of rhetoric sound with profound significance and moments of anguish are met with roaring laughter. Big Rodent's intimate, at times even cramped revival at the 60-seat Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (through June 12) leaves most of the meaning-making up to audience, there to glean whatever they may from the playwright's pregnant remarks.

Rosencrantz (Adam Aguirre) wide-eyed, conversational, with an ever-so-subtle lisp plays opposite Guildenstern (Jordan Gray), the more verbose character, a bit keener, his voice more lucid and theatrical. They're doppelgangers, split halves of the same personality, ancillary characters stuck in some grand drama beyond their comprehension (Hamlet's) and they can hardly get their own names straight. Existentialist bumpkins caught in a void, they try to make sense of their situation and pass the time flipping coins, playing games. Logic and probability are not only absurd but downright "stark raving sane."

The rest of the cast, the Tragedians who put on the play within Hamlet, double-cast as the elders of Hamlet's court, perform with a peculiar camp style. This may go back to director Cora Weissbourd's decision to set the work, as the company's website describes it, "amidst the illusionist craze of the Victorian era"—peculiar in itself since they're not setting the play within a particular time period, but within a dramatic convention. A convention is not a "setting" in the traditional sense, but it fits the tangled web of meta-theatricality this play weaves. That wording reflects the absurdists' customary antagonism toward dramatic realism. Hence, the brief scenes when the action of Hamlet comes to the foreground of Stoppard's play come off as a kind of late-night cartoon parody of the bard's work or productions of it that take themselves too seriously. So if great meaning can be found in the blathering duo's slew of hyper structured drivel, it's Hamlet's celebrated but fumbled lines that sound hollow.

(Photo: Shannon Taggart)