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This review by Joan Crespi was prepared for the July 9, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Princeton Summer Theater

For those few unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s "Hamlet,"

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two insignificant courtiers summoned

by King Claudius, Prince Hamlet’s newly-married stepfather, to probe

Hamlet’s pervasive melancholy, then to accompany Hamlet from Denmark

to England, where Claudius wants him killed. Life and drama sometimes

turns out otherwise, as the title of Tom Stoppard’s clever, existential

drama reveals. Stoppard’s "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"

is now running at Princeton Summer Theater at the Hamilton Murray

Theater on the Princeton University campus through Sunday, July 13.

It’s a difficult play to do: Stoppard is a cerebral, "talky."

playwright. Some lines do spark laughs. (Is Guildenstern, and so Stoppard,

commenting on the play when he says "No wonder the whole thing

is so stagnant"?) Clearly a reach for student actors, this production

is uneven. But as one audience member commented after the show, "Stoppard

is always worth a look."

Stoppard’s play first appeared in 1966; Shakespeare wrote his about

1601. Both remain highly popular. And both reveal something of the

human condition. Shakespeare’s reveals the dodges and anguish of inaction

in memorable and stirring language; Stoppard probes the inevitability

of death, with no choice involved. Why? Because, in the words of the

Player (commandingly played by Jed Peterson), "It is written.

The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily."

Stoppard has taken these two nobodys — interchangeable to others

and at times to themselves — and presented them as principals

in their own lives. Benjamin Mains is excellent as Rosencrantz. His

facial expressions and sometime antics are telling. Guildenstern,

played by Greg Taubman, warms to the part as the play progresses.

The two puzzled, ill-fated characters are on stage for the play’s

entire duration. (And both have learned, without a fumble, a prodigious

number of lines.)

Raised from youth with Hamlet, and sent for by the king (an issue

thath they mull over endlessly), they bear a letter from Claudius

asking the King of England to behead Hamlet.

Listen to the opening dialogue and you might think you’re watching

a Samuel Beckett play. Coin tossing produces 90 "heads" (and

counting, throughout the play), overturning the laws of probability.

Things are not behaving as they should. Neither is Hamlet. Which gives

cause for both plays.

Stoppard plays with the word and act of death, dwells on its actuality

and shamming (using the players that played at the court and are met

again on shipboard). Death is "unobtrusive, unannounced."

And "we move idly toward eternity."

The play works through dramatic irony: the audience knows something

about the present fate of the two that they do not. This helps hold

the audience during much intellectual, philosophical, or farcical

conversation and game play between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They

spar aimlessly, wittily, over inconsequential subjects. It passes

the time.

The players come, a rag-tag bunch, with a cart, on their way to perform

before the king, and provide more opportunity for interplay, for Rosencrantz

and Guildenstern. One of the players, Alfred, a man playing a woman

(Sean Effinger-Dean), says little but takes his greenish taffeta skirt

on and off on command, provoking general laughter. Add his/her little

breasts for grasping.

Here one must mention the costumes: the players are appropriately

and colorfully costumed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, too, are in

fitting Elizabethan costumes — costumer Jessie Leto has caught

the time and mood. David Bengali’s lighting also captures the play’s

more transient moods.

Director Rosemary Rodriguez places the characters, moving

side to side, on the middle and lower levels of a three-level stage.

Appearing on the top level, are the characters from "Hamlet."

(In this interpretation Hamlet is played so broadly he is devoid of

melancholy. All antics, he seems like a clown; Ophelia looks and acts

like a sleazy harlot.) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always appear

below. Rodriguez has chosen to keep the two social classes apart.

While some fragments of "Hamlet" involving Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern are woven through the play, this production chooses to

separate, not integrate, them.

In Act III, on board ship, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act out an

imagined scene with the King of England, find and read the letter

to him requesting Hamlet’s death. Hamlet, hidden behind an umbrella,

overhears all.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter the tragedians on board ship

and Guildenstern berates the players for their sham deaths, which

is not actual death.

"Dying is not a game," says this gamesman. After a violent

melee of sword-play (coordinated by Jed Peterson), Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern sleep, and Hamlet replaces the letter requesting his

death with one requesting theirs. They open and read it and learn

of their own deaths."We’ve done nothing wrong!" cries Rosencrantz.

But they won’t escape. So it is written.

As the Player predicted, the play is finished (here, as in "Hamlet’)

when all of the court lie dead.

— Joan Crespi

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Princeton Summer

Theater , Murray Theater, 609-258-7062. $12. Through July 13.

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