Remember Rosencrantz? From Hamlet? How about Guildenstern? In Shakespeare’s play, these childhood friends of the titular character are commissioned to spy on the Prince of Denmark in order to find out what’s ailing him, then escort him by sea to England where he is scheduled to be killed. But then the pirates attack …
Forgettable ciphers in Shakespeare’s text, these minor characters form the heart of Tom Stoppard’s 1968 Tony Award-winner for best play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. First performed two years earlier, Stoppard’s absurdist script deposits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the periphery of the action at Castle Elsinore, where Hamlet is rapidly succumbing to mistrust and madness. Frequently alienated from the action in Shakespeare’s original play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are rudderless, buffeted by the actions of others, who lie outside of their control or apprehension.
Stoppard exploits their inability to command or even fathom the forces at work around them, crafting a duo of existential anti-heroes who are two sides of a single coin. Directed by Shana Bestock, Seattle Public Theater’s incarnation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead capitalizes on Stoppard’s ability to meld the apparently aimless non sequiturs of a Samuel Beckett play with laser-like wit and profound ruminations that are both metaphysical and mundane.
In the broken down backend of Elsinore, which resembles a dreary, gray warehouse, Rosencrantz (Angela DiMarco) and Guildenstern (Alyssa Keene) flip a coin compulsively, arriving at heads an improbable 92 times consecutively. Their rambling talk of syllogisms and endless game-playing is an attempt to sort out their complete confusion about what they are supposed to be doing at Elsinore, why they came in the first place, and which of them is really Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. There is little they can remember about their respective pasts, and even less they can predict about the future, despite their possession of a coin that seems guided by the hand of fate.
By casting women in the traditionally male title roles, Bestock alienates the characters further from the action of Hamlet, which is always happening just off stage. Clad in manly charcoal suits tailored to androgynous lines by Costume Designer Pete Rush, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern call themselves “ladies,” yet are referred to as men by Hamlet’s dysfunctional clan. Keene and DiMarco go beyond a gender-bender act, delivering deep character studies that are all the more affecting because of their irresolvable identity crises.
The only lighthouse in their befogged confusion is The Player (Heather Hawkins), head of a troupe of traveling actors who are destined to perform Hamlet’s accusatory play for his mother and his murderous uncle-turned-stepfather. Also traditionally a male role that has been given a gender swap by Bestock, The Player and her raggedy troupe offer “transvestite melodrama on all levels. … We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off,” which is a pitch-perfect summary of the Seattle Public Theater production.
Fundamentally false beings, The Player and her gaggle of actors provide the most comprehensible interpretation of the world of Hamlet available to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Specialists in simulating death on stage, they are continually reborn in the real world, just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s uncertainty about their roles in the universe. “Where’s it going to end?” Rosencrantz wonders. “That’s the question,” Rosencrantz replies, in a Vietnam-era variation on the most famous philosophical soliloquy in history.
Though humorous in tone, Seattle Public Theater’s interpretation does not shy away from the occasional moment of pathos, as when manic Hamlet (Patrick Lennon), spouting the tail-end of his “Get thee to a nunnery,” speech, casts frail Ophelia (Kenna Kettrick) into the midst of a dress rehearsal of The Player’s amateurish production. As Ophelia lies sobbing in a heap on the floor, the troupe of actors continue their murder-ridden rehearsal, unfazed. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch all of this, unsure as always what to make of this turn of events.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play of incidents rather than sustained action; of speculation rather than revelation. Bestock keeps the fragmentary moments flowing cohesively throughout the evening, helping the actors navigate the boggy tracts of philosophical and, at times, maddeningly repetitive dialogue. In lesser hands, the text can take over, sinking the action into a dull exercise in call and response between the title characters. Though by the end, Guildenstern reports that she has lost all capacity for disbelief, the absurdist nature of the play does not guarantee that the audience will have done the same, even after more than two hours. The palpable commitment of the company to the existential crisis going on in each character provided ample meaning to a plot that is essentially without meaning.
Dismissed at the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by the laconic report from England, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” the duo are granted heroic status in their own eyes in Stoppard’s text. “Who knew we were so important?” Rosencrantz marvels, as she and her counterpart sail inexorably toward the death they have been waiting for all along.
If you go: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 19 at Seattle Public Theater at The Bathhouse, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., Seattle. Tickets $15-$27. For more information, visit www.seattlepublictheater.org.