You don't have to know Hamlet to understand the sense of doom that pervades Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It's there in the title, after all. But it does help to know a bit of the backstory. For many of us, that's not a problem. We spent entire semesters of high school in the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, debating the cause of Hamlet's madness and connecting it to larger themes in the play. We wrote AP English papers about mortality, predestination, and the guise of madness, analyzed the famous "To be or not to be" speech, and learned to empathize with the gloomy prince.
Ergo, the brilliance of Tom Stoppard's 1966 play, onstage through February 14 at TheatreFIRST's new home stage, the Marion E. Green Theatre in Oakland. It's the inverse of Hamlet, retold by two courtiers whose role in the original play was to whisk Prince Hamlet from Denmark to England, where he would be executed. Hamlet turned the tables, and they wound up dying in his place. That's a pivotal detail, since it precipitates Hamlet's return to Denmark, where he finds the grave of his girlfriend, Ophelia, and sets a new chain of events in motion. Yet Shakespeare gave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern very few lines — by Act IV he had bigger fish to fry. Thus, it's easy to know Hamlet well and forget they ever existed.
That's what made Stoppard's idea so off-the-wall. Not only did he retell Hamlet from a witness point-of-view, he used witnesses whose death is necessary. As Guildenstern puts it, "Our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along inexorably." It takes a capable group of actors to convey that theme in a comprehensible way.
More importantly, it takes an adept Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Those lead parts are tricky because they have to come off as two smart, thinking men who nonetheless play a servile role. Rosencrantz (Kalli Jonsson) and Guildenstern (Michael Storm) open the play with a game of "spinning coins" in which they bet whether the coin will land heads or tails. After 92 consecutive "heads," a flustered Guildenstern starts pontificating on the nature of probability. As the play progresses, the significance of this scene becomes apparent: The characters' fate is sealed. But it's also crucial in establishing who these guys are. Storm plays Guildenstern as the headier, moodier character. He's a bit of a Hamlet in his own right, constantly presenting syllogisms, musing about death, and looking askance at people. Rosencrantz is the goofier, more literal of the two. Physically, they're perfect. They wear matching outfits (button-down shirts, cargo pants, and leather shoes) and often swap names — the joke being that they're so overlooked in the original text that they may as well be indistinguishable. But in this version, their looks complement one another. Storm grew a beard for the part, while Jonsson is clean-shaven and baby-faced. It's the right mix of levity and gravitas.
TheatreFIRST has a relatively bare-bones setup, which adds another dimension of difficulty, particularly for a play like this one. Not only does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take place in multiple locations, it also incorporates the action of three plays into its fold (the third is The Murder of Gonzago, the play-within-a-play that predicts everyone's deaths). Yet director Marybeth Cavanaugh and set designer Rick Ortenblad handled that rather well. Instead of building a proscenium stage, they painted a stage on the floor and placed three tiers of risers in the back. A large screen with clouds makes the whole set look ethereal. Meanwhile, it's big enough for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to run and shally about — and, granted, they do a lot of running and shallying.
It's also set up for multiple planes of action. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand around and philosophize about Prince Hamlet's madness, Hamlet takes place all around them, as though it were happening in a parallel universe. We see Hamlet (Harold Pierce) and Ophelia (Siobhan Doherty, who doubles as the play's choreographer) fighting in pantomime. We hear him banishing her to a nunnery. We see Hamlet drag the corpse of Polonius (George Killingsworth) around the stage on a dolly, ignoring a stunned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Aboard the ship — a set piece that's mostly implied, through clever use of lighting — Hamlet sits in a far corner, sunbathing or hiding beneath a large umbrella, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand in the foreground. Minstrels and tragedians pop up through trap doors. With tactical blocking, Cavanaugh makes the whole thing look more complex than it actually is.
That's a huge feat for a scrappy theater company. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is TheatreFIRST's second production in its new black box. It features a large ensemble, uses a complex plot device, and clocks in at about three hours. But even with all the tortuous dialogue between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (they spend a large portion of one scene playing "Questions"), the play appears to roll by at a fast clip. Storm, who also serves as the company's artistic director, obviously likes plays that demand a lot of the audience. His tastes are starting to pay dividends.