Deep into its 78th season of main stage shows, Lakewood Playhouse has opened a production of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 absurdist comedy, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” The play takes two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s masterpiece “Hamlet” and features them as anti-heroes in a convoluted series of dialogues that deal with various facets of the existentialist conundrum. Having found themselves in a peculiar, limbo-like place, the two seem perplexed as to where they are, who they are and why they are. Via a series of scenarios, colored by humor (ranging from slapstick to highly refined wit), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exemplify the absurd situation in which modern humanity finds itself: stripped of metaphysical explanations for the existence of the universe, we seem to come out of nothing and return to nothing. In between we grapple with the problem of finding meaning, direction and purpose in our lives. The play can be seen as a very elaborate exploration of Hamlet’s classic proposition that “to be, or not to be” is our main question.
Between intersecting with moments from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and dealing with a wandering troupe of tragedians (led by a mysterious character called “the Player”) the two characters become a means to highlight the way in which art (drama) serves to give our lives a sense of meaning, structure and expectation that is often illusory and misleading. As the old mythologies increasingly lose their potency, our culture seems more and more consumed with various forms of narrative (cinema, television, and other forms of mass media). Stoppard suggests that drama, in increasingly degraded form, is becoming the source for the expectations that we have for our lives.
The Lakewood Playhouse production of this complex play is directed by Beau M.K. Prichard and features a stellar cast that includes local talent like Theresa Byrd, Silva Goetz, Shelby Isham, Breann Nicholas and Dayna Childs (as Queen Gertrude.) Dylan Twiner does a swashbuckling version of prince Hamlet while Gabi Marler is beguilingly funny as Ophelia. Ben Stahl and Jennifer Davy will both be familiar to the Lakewood Playhouse audience. Noah Goucher is particularly goofy as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and W. Scott Pinkston plays a rubbery version of Polonius. Many of the above double as members of the group of tragedians.
The play is anchored by the talented duo of Frank Roberts (as the tall and jocular Rosencrantz) and Paul Richter (as the intellectual Guildenstern). The two function almost like two halves of a single character. Indeed, within the play, they exhibit confusion as to who is who even between themselves.
The show stealer is Nathan Rice who stars as “The Player,” the wry, brilliant and amoral leader of a ragtag troupe of actors that seem doomed to traipse through the limbo world and seek out audiences for their ever more bloody and pornographic performances. The Player is the only character that seems to possess any knowledge of what is going on within the multilevel framework of the play.
Note must be made of Blake R. York’s rustic set design and of Rochelle-Ann Graham’s lush costumes. The rust-colored, velvet tunic sported by the Player makes him seem like a piratical pumpkin. Aaron Mohs-Hale’s job of lighting the stage is brilliant. The lighting creates a variety of magical moments, like when the Player presides over a scene of carnage and the whole stage is flooded with blood-red illumination.
The evening begins with a lively and comedic rendition of “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet,” which serves to get the audience into a mood for humor and is a quick review of the contours of “Hamlet.”
Stoppard’s stage plays are so rich and multilayered that they can withstand multiple viewings. This is a play that is sure to breed new insight upon every reading and viewing. Lakewood Playhouse does justice to the piece with a well-conceived show that is flawlessly performed.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” runs through May 7. For further information visit www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.