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A Guide for the Perplexed 

To some people, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is still avant-garde

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
During the first intermission of a performance in London, maybe 10 years ago, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I heard an elderly American tourist turn to his wife and say, "This isn't Shakespeare."

It isn't, no. But last weekend almost the same thing happened after a matinee of Jonathan Moscone's new production in Orinda. An elderly couple -- impressed by the comedy but thoroughly confused by the script -- asked me what it was all about, and why characters from Hamlet kept turning up onstage. For some of us, it seems, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was required reading in high school; for others, the play is still avant-garde. Well, fair enough. But to somebody at the California Shakespeare Festival, who apparently figured the audience would just know about the play, printing a summary in the program seemed unnecessary. Instead, the program includes a bio of Stoppard, the "first living playwright" Cal Shakes has produced.

The omission exaggerates the whole private-joke quality of the show. If you're in on the joke, it's pretty good. If not, it's confusing. Further, someone coming fresh to the production after missing the Cal Shakes Hamlet last month, even if he or she has heard of Stoppard, might wonder why Ophelia looks like Lewis Carroll's Alice, or why Hamlet is a woman, or why the open box at center stage is painted day-glo green. This review, then, should serve as a guide for the perplexed. Cut it out and stuff it in your wallet.

Stoppard's inversion of Hamlet is a study in God, chance, and fate. Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's destinies were set down by Shakespeare, but Stoppard gives them some comic latitude, and follows the old tragedy from their perspective, beginning on the road to Elsinore and ending with Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's executions in England. Scenes from Hamlet interrupt funny philosophical chatter. Is free will an illusion? Who the hell knows? Stoppard's vaudeville routines undercut Shakespeare's language, and owe a great deal to Beckett as well as Pirandello, which is why the same set Karin Coonrod used for Hamlet last month, with a sort of floating square in the middle boxed in by vertical rods, is no longer black and gloomy but absurdly red and yellow-green.

Coonrod's production of Hamlet swarmed with concepts; one of them was the notion of dressing the court as figures from Alice in Wonderland. Ophelia resembled Alice, and here still wears her panniered, powder blue dress. A pit in the square at center stage also served as Ophelia's grave, and now the same pit opens to let characters come and go. If you saw Hamlet, the grave-echo is immediate and stark. If you didn't, you may just see a trapdoor.

There are differences from Hamlet, as well as similarities. Stacy Ross plays the troubled prince, instead of Steven Skybell, but mimics Skybell's gestures and even wears a phony drawn-on beard. Last month Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looked like Tweedledee and Tweedledum; now they're dressed (by Meg Neville) in high Elizabethan pomp. Patrick Kerr is the Player King in both productions, but in this one he wears a trench coat and looks like a "comic pornographer and his rabble of prostitutes." His rabble are decadent, ragged versions of their incarnations in Hamlet, and arrive onstage in a Volkswagen.

Kerr drives the show, along with Sam Catlin as Rosencrantz and Liam Craig as Guildenstern. They're a triumvirate of comic energy, and it's good to see Kerr in a leading role. He hollers his most important lines -- louder than I've heard them hollered, at least -- ranting with righteous fury when he meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at Elsinore again, after the two boys have snuck away from an impromptu naked production by the players in the woods. The company, rages Kerr, felt like a bunch of idiots. "Don't you see?" he says. "We're actors! We're the opposite of people!" He's pissed because his tragedians were robbed of their sustaining illusion that "Somebody is watching!" Kerr's anger is unexpected but well-placed; it works as high entertainment as well as script-emphasis.

Catlin and Craig play the hapless pair like Abbott and Costello, or like Akbar and Jeff in Matt Groening's Life in Hell. Their relationship is vaguely gay, always unconsummated, with a slight bottom-top bias tilted in Guildenstern's favor. Catlin is murderously precise as the bumbling Rosencrantz, sabotaging Guildenstern's airy philosophical musings with simple-minded incompetence. Both actors affect British accents, though they're Americans from New York, but their accents are dead-on and unpretentious. What they and the whole production lack is not pathos, or tragic feeling -- since Stoppard, after all, isn't Shakespeare -- but a sense of doom, or lethal foreordination. You get doom only from Moscone's private jokes, like the echoes of Ophelia's grave.

Jonathan Moscone directed this show as well as the path of the current Cal Shakes season -- his first, as artistic director -- so I assume the mocking, shadowboxing conversation between Hamlet and R&G was his idea. It's brilliant, as an idea. In fact, it's a measure of how much Moscone has done for Cal Shakes that he replaced a proposed production of Titus Andronicus -- Shakespearean deadwood -- on this year's roster with R&G. Fresh, immediate, funny shows with clever concepts are Moscone's strengths, the kind of stuff he encourages; but gravitas and tragedy seem to dissolve under his hand. Well, he's young. Gravitas and tragedy might take time. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for now, are fun to watch.


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