In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark ponders his existence in one of the most famous soliloquies in the history of theater: “To be or not to be — that is the question.” He struggles to understand what he should be doing and what his life means, how he is to cope with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” namely his father’s likely murder by his uncle Claudius who has subsequently married his mother Gertrude. That exploration of motive and direction is at the core of Shakespeare’s great tragedy; it’s also the spring-loaded question that perplexes and bedevils the central characters in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, currently being presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
There’s good reason for this linkage: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are throwaway characters in Hamlet, a pair of the Prince’s college chums recruited by the usurping Claudius to ascertain their friend’s tumultuous state of mind and ultimately escort him to England with a letter ordering his execution. Hamlet learns of this plan, escapes and turns the tables, demanding that his one-time companions be summarily dispatched. As Shakespeare’s tragedy concludes, the British ambassador reports that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
Stoppard’s 1966 play took that line as its jumping-off point, inspiring a retelling of the story of courtly intrigue from the perspective of two minor characters struggling to understand their roles. They’ve been summoned to court with little explanation; King Claudius has motives they cannot fathom, and their friend Hamlet behaves erratically, vacillating between madness and seeming insanity.
“A man talking sense to himself,” Guildenstern observes, “is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself … or just as mad.” Rosencrantz replies, “And he does both … stark raving sane.”
That’s the essence of Stoppard’s witty, dark take on the tragedy — the madness of sanity and the sanity of madness. The pair repeatedly run down blind alleys of logic and trip on circular loops of reasoning, unable to grasp what their existence means or even what course of action they are expected to carry out. Swirling around them are Shakespeare’s courtly characters, moved by inscrutable motives. The play is an absurdist’s paradise and a sane man’s paradox.
Cincinnati Shakespeare’s production reprises the cast from its recent staging of Hamlet (Jan. 10-Feb. 9), including Justin McCombs and Billy Chace as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Brent Vimtrup, who gave a stirring, crystal-clear performance as the Prince, now darts in and out, performing snatches of the original work. He riddles them with questions (from Shakespeare’s text) that they are at a loss to answer; they subsequently bemoan that he has outscored them 27 to 3.
Bruce Cromer’s Claudius and Sherman Fracher’s Gertrude pigeonhole the pair, whose names they can’t keep straight, and badger them to fathom Hamlet’s precarious state of mind and carry out nefarious, murky tasks. We catch glimpses of other characters, but it’s only the zany actors, led by the manic Player King (Jim Hopkins who makes the most of this expanded comic role), who spend extended time with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Still dressed in riotous black-and-white outfits with scarlet accents, the troupe underscores the playfulness of theatrical conventions, information that only adds to the title characters’ confusion about the reality or unreality of their own existence. “We’re actors,” the Player King expounds: “We’re the opposite of people.”
There is no confusion, however, from actors McCombs and Chace who have a firm grasp on their hapless characters. Chace’s loquacious Guildenstern motors through countless syllogisms and scenarios, contradicting himself and chasing his own tail around an explanation of their situation. His is an immense role, an avalanche of words best delivered at high velocity, Chace’s forte. McCombs portrays the sweeter, bewildered Rosencrantz, struggling to remember simple facts from earlier in the day or farther in the past. He has the childlike innocence of Stan Laurel, contrasted to Chace’s pomposity, in the style of Oliver Hardy — the slapstick comedy team from American movies in the 1920s,’30s and ’40s. Chace and McCombs are wonderfully suited to Stoppard’s rapid-fire dialogue, and dressed in natty, pinched suits and bowler hats (repeatedly doffed and donned with clever choreography), they offer accomplished comic performances.
By offering this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in close proximity to its recent staging of Hamlet and using the same cast, Cincinnati Shakespeare has deeply enhanced the experience of both of these classic works, separated by four centuries in their creation, but sharing common philosophical ground in their exploration of the meaning of existence.
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, presented Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through March 9.