Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, like the great play which gave rise to it, is a puzzle box yielding different treasures every time you open it up. I’m delighted to report that Infinite Jest’s Fringe version, edited (cannily, for the most part) from three hours to ninety minutes, does precisely that, giving us a Rosencrantz (Mundy Spears) and Guildenstern (Bill Gordon) who are characters in full; real people who have, somehow, wandered into someone else’s play. That is to say, they are much like us.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the fleshed-out story of two minor characters from Hamlet, old buds of the melancholy prince (Sam Taylor) who have been commandeered to Elsinore in order to take his emotional temperature and report back. After Hamlet kills Polonius (Mary Suib), the pair gets a new commission: to take their old friend back to England, and to give the King there a letter directing Hamlet’s execution. Hamlet is on to them in an instant, and substitutes a letter telling the King to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead.
Playwright Tom Stoppard’s genius idea was not simply to tell the story from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s perspective, but to tell them from their perspective as we see them. They are thus minor characters, struggling to find a backstory, an initiating event, a rationale for their present dilemma. They can remember back to the morning, when they were summoned to the court of Elsinore, but no further, and even those early-morning moments may be suppositions, rather than actual memories. They struggle mightily to perform their royal commissions, but they are fated (by the script) to failure, and it frustrates and humiliates them. Eventually they find themselves on a boat, and their final mission of death. They don’t know why, but they move forward; when Hamlet escapes, they inexplicably continue to England, and their deaths. It makes no sense, but it is required by the script.
This is absurd, but no more absurd than our own lives. We live in a welter of dilemmas of our own, but we are unclear how they came about, or how to extricate ourselves from them. How did we get this terrible job, this unfortunate relationship? We know our own backstories, but important details are somehow missing, and if we manage to tumble out of one dilemma, we dive headlong into another.
Stoppard accomplishes his task by interspersing parts of Shakespeare’s play with his own creation; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern use modern language as a run-up to their scenes in Hamlet, which are played exactly as written. The other free agents – by which I mean characters who have lines beyond the ones Shakespeare had written for them – are the Player King (Jeffrey S. Clevenger) and his troupe (Christopher Herring, Steven Hock, and Alani Kravitz). They serve as R & G’s antagonists, and in this production serve very well indeed.
The Infinite Jest production focuses on this main theme, and jettisons many of Stoppard’s comic distractions. Stoppard is a brilliant playwright, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a feast of wit, but this slenderized version may actually be more productive in making the play’s moral weight apparent to us. So focused, Guildenstern is less the pretentious clown he usually is, and more the philosopher-peasant, who has been stripped of his dignity and tries, in a philosophical way, to know why. Rosencrantz, instead of being a moron, is a frightened individual who is resolved to smile through the awful things that are happening because smiling is better than weeping.
Of course, part of this effect is caused by the excellent reads Gordon and Spears give to the characters. Gordon’s hesitant Guildenstern is constantly tumbling into something which looks and feels like wisdom, but is not; Gordon shows him in the constant process of discovering. Guildenstern’s primary vice, as Gordon plays him, is not dogmatism but overthinking, and his efforts, though foolish and futile, are also noble, even heroic.
Spears is similarly excellent as Rosencrantz. I am not a big fan of cross-gender casting unless the production changes the gender of the character as well (as WSC Avant Bard did in its terrific Richard III). However, Spears’ androgynous Rosencrantz opens up some space in which to examine the character; when, for example, she says “I want to go home” during the final, doomed boat ride, Rosencrantz seems sad and appealing, and not just some needy loser (I know, I know, cultural norms impose themselves, but what are we going to do?). If you are to do cross-gender casting, why not go all the way and change the character’s gender? Would it have been inconceivable that Hamlet – at least the rarified Hamlet of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – might have made friends with a woman at Wittenberg?
I have a few quibbles. The only excision which didn’t work, in my view, was the severe truncating of the scene in which Hamlet first meets R & G, and with a few well-thrust questions, completely uncovers their reason for being in Elsinore and their commission. Without that scene in full, the subsequent scene, in which Rosencrantz flails Guildenstern for failing to execute their plan to draw Hamlet out, seems much less funny. And I disagree with director Kari Ginsburg’s decision to deck out the house of Claudius as buffoons, putting the King (William Aitkin) in an Elvis shirt, making Gertrude (Kim Pyle) a meandering drunk, and, especially, turning Polonius into an insufferable (and implausible) ham, whose every gesture makes him a parody of a bad actor.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is pointed enough when Stoppard’s characters wander into the play Shakespeare wrote; to seek to add absurdity by altering Shakespeare’s depiction is subtraction by addition. Otherwise, however, Ginsburg does a beautiful job.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern brings one of the endearing mysteries of Hamlet into focus. We know from Shakespeare’s text that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bore a commission from Claudius that Hamlet be killed and that Hamlet substituted another letter for that commission; we also know that Hamlet claimed that pirates overwhelmed the boat carrying him and his captors, and carried him off, and that he later escaped to Elsinore. We know further that on supposed orders from Claudius, the English King put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death, and we surmise that this was the forged commission Hamlet substituted for the one which condemned himself to death.
But if Hamlet was captured by pirates, why would Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to England? After all, their sole purpose was to deliver Hamlet. And why in God’s name would they present the King with a commission commanding him to kill someone who was no longer in their company?
The answer is as sad as it is inescapable. Hamlet was not captured by pirates. He accompanied Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England and stood silently – perhaps approvingly – as the King read the letter condemning his old friends to death. He nodded gravely as they were led to the chopping block, and perhaps whistled a tune as he sailed back to Denmark in an English ship. He was as much a moral monster as the man who was trying to kill him.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012 at Redrum at Fort Fringe612 L St NW, Washington, DC
Tim rates this 4 out of a possible 5.