It happens late in Act 1 and lasts all of two minutes. Frustrated by their persistent inability to figure out just where they are, what they are supposed to be doing, or even which one of them is which, Tom Stoppard’s hapless titular characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resign themselves to a verbal tennis match in an attempt to pass the time. They trade rapid-fire questions and keep score as they volley, crying foul when their queries elicit statements, non sequiturs, rhetoric, or repetition—anything but another query. It’s a fast, funny tour-de-force exchange that sears itself into the memory.
Forty years after the play was first set before footlights, the game of Questions has become a fixture of hacky improv. (It is a truth universally accepted that a theatrical device loses its power once employed with any regularity by Drew Carey.) Yet ask anyone: You admire the play’s blistering wit, you appreciate its fatalistic wisdom, but you fall in full, mad, freaky love with the Questions scene.
The scene, and the play, is holding up just fine, if Studio Theatre’s lean, spirited, and cleverly staged production is any guide. Director Kirk Jackson doesn’t let the Questions scene overwhelm the less showy stuff: ruminations on the nature of fate and probability, humorously futile attempts to puzzle out the meaning of life, and at least one lengthy disquisition on the emotional neediness of actors.
That’s quite an accomplishment, especially when your two protagonists have been deliberately written as ciphers. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flat background characters, a pair of flunkies who further the plot by spying on the prince of Denmark. Stoppard’s decision to retell the story from their point of view is clever, but it’s his decision to simply cut-and-paste them onto the stage, without providing them any backstory or motivation, that’s the real genius of the thing.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s entire purpose, after all, is to exist at the periphery, so it just makes sense that even when Stoppard gives us a chance to gaze at them fixedly, they continue to shift in and out of focus. We, and they, know only what Shakespeare originally told us about them, which isn’t a hell of a lot. Over the course of the play, they will forget most of what they fitfully come to learn and only manage to muster brief and often contradictory flashes of insight about what’s going on around them.
Raymond Bokhour is Rosencrantz, the more childlike of the two, and while the other actors talk, he adopts an expression of slack-jawed, bemused placidity that seems just right. Liam Craig’s Guildenstern, on the other hand, is all business: confident, short-tempered, determined to bring science and logic to bear on the mystery of his situation and failing gloriously. Craig is saddled with the play’s more didactic rhetorical runs, and while you can hear the writing (especially in a series of early speeches), it’s the sound of a man futilely attempting to wrest some control over his life from the universe.
On the way to Elsinore, our heroes encounter a ragged band of tragedians led by a determinedly seedy Player (Floyd King) who sports a grubby smoking jacket and pencil-thin (and penciled-on) moustache—a louche blend of world-weariness, resolute opportunism, and a subtly sinister air.
In such a wordy play, it’s perhaps surprising that the director has found room for so many good, unscripted sight gags. Marshall Elliott’s inky-cloaked Hamlet swans about the stage, jut-jawed, hand to brow, angling his lean body forward with melodramatic fervor. Craig employs a repertoire of intricate hand gestures that amplify (or flatly contradict) his dialogue again and again. Bokhour and Craig begin Act 3, which is set on a boat bound for England, swaying back and forth, miming the ocean’s swells—until, with a quick look, they agree to knock it off.
But there’s something missing from the production, and it has to do with how the actors navigate this tricky theatrical space. When the events of Shakespeare’s play intrude upon the action, it should feel, well, intrusive: a frenzy of sudden, chaotic movement that picks up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, spins them around, hurls them back to earth, and departs just as quickly as it came. And the quiet that follows should be deafening.
That doesn’t quite happen, due in part to the way Daniel Conway’s sleek, handsome set forces the actors to make their varied entrances and exits through trap doors, secret panels, and pivoting walls, causing some residual sluggishness in the timing of certain scenes. The script calls for the actors playing Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Ophelia, and Polonius to continue declaiming as they make their exits, letting their voices fade gradually, as if the action of their play has simply moved on. That still needs a bit of work: More than once, the actors ran out of lines before they ran out of stage and exited in awkward silence.
It’s a minor glitch, but in a Stoppard play, and especially in one as solidly built as this one, any unscripted silence is glaring. That’s because underneath its pomo window dressing, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is really about our innate fear of quiet, our desperate need to fill up any silence with the human noise of “words, words, words.”
There’s a hell of a lot of those, here. The constant verbal jousting onstage is so dizzyingly quick and witty, in fact, that you occasionally forget how much the play owes to Samuel Beckett, who favored banal, repetitious dialogue and ponderous theatrical silence. But then, given its subject (death), setting (limbo), and action (two men dithering over what to do), he casts a long shadow.
And Jackson really doesn’t want you to forget that. In fact, he plays the affinity up for all its worth—maybe even a bit more than its worth; instead of sticking characters in funeral urns or sand pits to symbolize their passivity, à la Beckett, the lights at Studio come up on Bokhour and Craig seemingly embedded in the stage up to their waists. Turns out they’re simply standing in a pair of trap doors, but between that and the bowler hats they’re sporting, it won’t be the last time during the course of the evening that you find yourself looking around for Pozzo and Lucky.