By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Butterflies, Chinese philosophers and eternity are a fraction of the topics covered by playwright Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, on stage as a bookend to Hamlet at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival.
Jeremy Dubin (left) and Christopher Guthrie are the bewildered Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.
Rosencrantz uses William Shakespeare (the title comes from a line of dialogue at the end of Hamlet) to pay homage to Samuel Beckett, with a nod to Abbott and Costello, too, in its three hours of dazzling mind and word play and endless questioning.
Stoppard never does get around to asking "Who's on First?" but his barrage of questions without answers range from "Are you happy?" to "What's the game?" "What are the rules?" and even its own variation on "To be or not to be?"
The play starts in a sort of no place/no time, which seems about one straggly tree down from Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. Two very minor characters from the Greatest Play in the English Language - intense Guildenstern (Jeremy Dubin) and doofus Rosencrantz (Christopher Guthrie) - are flipping coins and trying to remember exactly why they are where they are.
It turns out they have been summoned by the new king, Claudius (Dan Kenney), to figure out what's wrong with their childhood friend Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Brian Isaac Phillips), and to spy on him. (The acting ensemble plays the same roles for these back-to-back productions.)
So, back to Elsinore they go and settle in a royal waiting room where they wait - for they don't know what. Hamlet, friends and family rush past them, stopping for an occasional word on their way to the important plotting of plots. (Stoppard flashes his brilliance by writing the court scenes in iambic pentameter, a la the Bard.)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain clueless, although Stoppard tickles us by having them sum up the whole of Hamlet in about 90 seconds in a rat-a-tat of pertinent questions. (If Hamlet is the only son of the murdered king and he's of age, but he's not on the throne, what's his problem?)
They ponder life's ambiguities, death as the absence of presence, and whether they'll do better next time between moments as hapless (and uncomprehending) voyeurs to some of the best-known scenes in Shakespeare.
These are tour de force roles for the actors in the title roles, who never leave the stage through the play's three acts, whose sharp verbal parries can match any sword play and who must hold the stage through long periods of waiting - for something.
Dubin and Guthrie are a good pairing, and they hold their own but, like the characters they play, they are buffeted by forces beyond their control.
Casting the same acting ensemble in both plays would be a clever conceit if so many performances in Hamlet hadn't been so bad. But they haven't improved.
Also, modern costuming doesn't serve this play well. Its modern thought plays much funnier in Elizabethan costume.
Phillips takes over directing duties and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an improvement over Hamlet, but his directing is best described as intelligent and sturdy. You need thought that is larger, even extraordinary (think Metamorphoses, in terms of originality), to make classics necessary.
My wish for the festival next season, its 11th (see the 2004-05 lineup at right) is that the company will find visonary directors to return the company to the heights of a few season ago.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays through March 14, 381-2273.
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