Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Lantern Theater, St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow St., through May 11, 893-1145.

McMahon and Widdall are less convincing when death becomes not just the subject of idle speculation but a dead certainty.
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead bears as close a relationship to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot as it does to Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The two hapless characters, as in Beckett's play, never leave the stage, remaining puzzled and inactive while things happen around them, as they wait for the release of death, which they cannot begin to understand. In the Beckett play, nothing happens twice (the two tramps are visited in each act by two passersby). In the Stoppard play, nothing happens three times (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visited in each act by itinerant Players); meanwhile, the high drama of Hamlet unfolds around them, a ship that they do not steer, leading these insignificant attendant lords to their equally insignificant deaths.

It's not surprising, then, that Lantern Theater, which began its life a few seasons ago with a production of Waiting for Godot, should now try its hand at Stoppard's play, with many of the same artists.

Director Michael K. Brophy captures all of the play's conceptual wit and intellectual brilliance. All the game-playing is there (speculations on coin-tossing, the famous game of questions), in all its Stoppardian cleverness. Set designer Hal Sawyer has provided a wonderful portmanteau of a miniature stage for the traveling Players to act upon. And, in doubling the Players and the characters from Shakespeare's play, Brophy plays a few metatheatrical games of his own: the Hamlet characters appear, masked, on the St. Stephen's Theater proscenium stage, as though summoned by the lead Player (Gary Tucker), forcing us to wonder whose play-within-a-play we, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are watching.

Charles McMahon as Guildenstern and Russ Widdall as Rosencrantz are appropriately philosophical and clueless, respectively; or, rather, they show us that their characters are philosophical and clueless, respectively, which, unfortunately, is not the same thing.

McMahon gets to speak all Guildenstern's wonderful speculations on probability and fate ("I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past"); and Widdall gets to speak Rosencrantz's marvelous speculation on waking up, or not waking up, dead in a box, a speech that rivals, and serves much the same function, as Hamlet's "To be or not to be" meditation.

But McMahon and Widdall are far less convincing when the events of Hamlet begin to close in on their characters, when death becomes not just the subject of idle speculation but, first, a very real possibility and, finally, a dead certainty.

Without that real, emotional, visceral connection to the realities of death ("the absence of presence... the endless time of never coming back... a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound"), the play becomes little more than an academic exercise, a play that (as the Player says about the dumbshow in "The Murder of Gonzago") "makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style," and a production that (as the Player says about his own virtuoso death scene) is "merely competent."

-- Cary M. Mazer