02 Apr Oakland Tribune: Wit of 'Rosencrantz' tickles funny bone

by Angela Woodall

Posted: 01/26/2010 08:36:22 PM PST
Updated: 01/26/2010 11:32:25 PM PST

“Heads. Heads. Heads.” So begins “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” playwright Tom Stoppard’s contemplation on the irrationality of life and the role we play in it, which opened Saturday at TheatreFIRST.

Act 1 begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — originally two minor characters in “Hamlet” — flipping a coin, only to have it come up heads 92 consecutive times.

The scene provides the first inkling that the usual rules do not apply in this world. Instead, Stoppard pulls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and drops them into a parallel existence without a clue to go on about why they are there — or even why they exist.

“Words. Words. They’re all we have to go on,” Guildenstern says, hinting at the game in store for the audience during the next 2½ hours.

Only slowly do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Kalli Jonsson and Michael Storm, discover that they have been sent for by Claudius, the new king of Denmark.

Rosencrantz: “It was urgent. A matter of extreme urgency, a royal summons, his very words: official business and no questions asked. “… Fearful lest we come too late.”

“Too late for what?” Guildenstern asks.

“How do I know?” Rosencrantz replies. “We haven’t got there yet.”

Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, who has usurped the Danish throne by killing the prince’s father. The murder and marriage to the queen, portrayed by Natasha Noel, haunts Hamlet, played by Harold Pierce. Eventually, the bumbling duo is dispatched by the scheming uncle to find out the source of Hamlet’s madness then guide the prince to England and, they later find out, to his death.

It is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who die instead. Or do they? The answer is part of the game.

Hamlet’s dark drama is not the point of the play. It is only a vehicle for Stoppard. The world is run by madmen, he seems to say, and he pulls back the curtain to expose the charade.

As Guildenstern explains, “Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are “… condemned.”

Unless someone refuses. Only, so few people ever do. Like the anti-heroes, most people are content to be spectators “betting on certainties.”

Stoppard is, without a doubt, playing with us. But audiences from teenagers to seniors during a preview Thursday and on opening night Saturday evidently found it fun — they laughed and giggled and guffawed throughout.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bat cleverly written lines back and forth like Abbott and Costello in “Who’s on First?”. Jonsson, the dimwitted Costello to Storm’s straight-man Abbott, hit every word with just the right comic tone.

But the stage really lights up with the entrance of The Player, the leader of a roving troupe of would-be actors called the Tragedians — played by Aleph Ayin, Paul Festa, John Hilinski and G. Randall Wright.

Down and out, the Tragedians have turned into “a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes.” Funny ones, though, equipped with ukulele, trumpet and fiddle.

Actor Andrew Hurteau fills The Player role perfectly, combining a lecherous leer with mock Shakespearean pomposity who pokes fun at audiences’ search for escapism and entertainment on the level of the National Enquirer.

“Blood is compulsory,” The Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Guildenstern: “Is this what people want?”

“It’s what we do,” he replies matter-of-factly before pausing and turning away.

Bay Area director Marybeth Cavanaugh has held close to Stoppard’s original direction but added a few fun touches, such as Hamlet sunbathing on the ship taking him to England while sipping a Polynesian cocktail and looking like Dean Martin instead of doomed 16th-century royalty.

A few flubbed lines found their way into opening night, although they were barely noticeable. The distractions of a 4-year-old hanging from the railing and nine latecomers arriving 30 minutes into the show might have contributed. Then, a chandelier unexpectedly came crashing down inches from Storm. Amazingly, he and Jonsson looked over their shoulder and didn’t skip a beat.

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