Twice. I would see the San Antonio Shakespeare Company’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead twice. In fact, I plan to. The local troupe has manifested the existential antics of Hamlet’s most underdeveloped characters with such relevant, mesmerizing vulnerability and glee, if I could, I would buy it as one buys a DVD. Except rather than inserting a disc of fixed content into an electronic contraption every time I wanted to revisit it, I’d like to toddle into my closet and be transported to the Sterling Houston Theater over again to enjoy the uniqueness of each performance and the distinct, communal energy of the stage.
If such a thing were possible, however, I doubt it would be available at Best Buy for the low, low price of $19.99. And surely there would be a hidden, exorbitant installation fee for the closet-transporter component. How fortunate that we have until February 27 — closing night — to enjoy the show for the low, low price of $15 ($18 at the door).
Now that I’ve bestowed upon this production what might be the highest compliment a professional theater writer can, it’s prudent to add that I experienced this production of Tom Stoppard’s absurd tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with all the effervescence of one who has never properly seen the play performed live, and whose DVD rental history does not include Stoppard’s 1991 film adaptation. I had no preconceived notions about how it “should” or “shouldn’t” be done — though I daresay I know outstanding theater when I see it.
Bully to you if you are also in that boat, bearing no baggage, about to surrender to the tide of this hilarious, philosophical, bizarrely timeless 40-plus-year-old riff on the Bard’s esteemed tragedy. And if you’ve done Guildenstern, I submit that the play innately solicits repeated viewings and dissimilar tellings. For as long as we continue to revive Hamlet, his poor acquaintances Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be doomed to kill time in their “offstage” purgatory, vigilantly awaiting purpose in the narrative universe they inexplicably and forcibly inhabit, wondering if they “have not been picked up simply to be abandoned,” if they are not “entitled to some direction.” Sound familiar?
In Shakespeare’s tale, the indistinguishable duo are minor characters initially entreated by Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, and his bride — Hamlet’s freshly widowed mother, Queen Gertrude — to raise the spirits of the troubled, conceivably mad Danish prince. (Hey, who wouldn’t act out if his mother rather rapidly married the man who, as it happens, slew his father and usurped the throne?) Hamlet is increasingly unmanageable, so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are next appointed to spy on him, and finally to escort the royal heir across the high seas to England, where he is supposed to unwittingly meet his demise.
In R&G, Stoppard turns the spotlight away from Hamlet’s major movers and shakers and onto Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without giving them any more to go on than the insignificant amount of dialogue cruel Will S. ordained to them. They have no backstories, little motivation, and a lot of down time to argue over which of them is which and to deliberate how and why they are compelled to accomplish … something. It is a confusing relief when the essential action of Hamlet is thrust upon them, when their world is infiltrated by other characters — here decked out in Morgan Scharff’s drab steam-punk-meets-circus garb — who tip off the twosome how they might be involved in this mess. Best among them are Justin Laughlin’s howlingly matter-of-fact Player King and his band of bawdy, cross-dressing performers.
As Rosencrantz, Michael Burger is meek and deceptively simple-seeming; he juts his lower jaw forward, often looking embarrassed and compulsively grabbing at his coat sleeves as he verbally jousts with his companion — a far cry from the confident, hardboiled masculinity of Burger’s detective character in the Overtime Theater’s The Hard Bargain. Transferred from a near-bare stage to a ship’s deck in the third act, he exclaims with a subtle, knowing giddiness, “We’re on a boat!”
The implications of their situation more clearly distress Brandon Sasnett’s solemn Guildenstern, who cogitates aloud, stomps, and crosses his arms; with an intellectual tone, he ruminates upward, hands gesturing toward invisible scenes of foreboding. Is it impossible for them to assert influence in this familiar, predetermined universe? Is it possible that such a heavy play can be so funny?
Every Hamlet director must answer that play’s big, enduring question for him- or herself: Is the prince’s madness true or feigned? R&G’s big, enduring questions — what are we doing here and to what end? — belong to all of humanity. It is with deft but not showy direction that Matthew Byron Cassi confounds the line between stage and reality in this production, with smoke from the stage seeping into the rows of theater seats. Set adrift together, for a few hours we held one another’s hands in existential hell, laughing all the way. •