All reports that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead have been greatly exaggerated. They are clearly alive and well, at least, for most of Tom Stoppard’s funny play, which is now making an appearance at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, after almost 20 years. And the production, under the direction of Paul Mullins, is enlivening enough to possibly stir up the dead. Mullins, who has been a contributing artist both as an actor and as a director at the Shakespeare Theater for the past 14 years, keeps the staging appropriately simple, i.e., on a virtually bare stage but bordered by flickering old-fashioned footlights. Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt fulfills his job by contributing three large barrels and an umbrella (did they have umbrellas in Elsinore?) for the next to final scene on the deck of a ship.
With no apologies to Shakespeare, Stoppard wittily plucked two minor characters from “Hamlet” and created a dazzlingly wordy and deliberately confounding play in which the melancholy Dane is made distinctly minor. Director Mullins uses a quote from Stoppard in his program notes: “My whole life is waiting for the questions to which I have prepared answers.” So it is apropos that a pair of secondary characters, in this excellently acted and directed production, attempt to discover the questions, such as the primary — to be or not to be — and thus steal the thunder away from the principals.
In support of the title characters, played respectively and delectably by Sean Mahan and David Conrad, are the seasoned Andrew Weems, as the Player, an outlandish ham of the first order, and the youthful Seamus Mulcahy, as Alfred, the youngest of Weems’ morally reckless (“tired of being what they are”) traveling thespians, and the one given all the “en travestie” assignments.
Both Weems, with his delicious disregard for underplaying, and Mulcahy, with his humiliations all but painted on his innocent face, present a glowing balance of loquacity and mime, perfectly in tune and perfectly contrasted. Their presence and relationship alone are worthy of yet another play within the play within the play. Weems, who was in the Broadway productions of “The Green Bird” and “London Assurance,” was part of the ebullient cast in “Bach at Leipzig” a few seasons back Off-Broadway. Mulcahy, who is making his debut with the Shakespeare Theater, had a small role last season in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
The allusions to both the gibberish of Abbott and Costello (particularly the classic routine “who’s on first, what’s on second”) and the absurdist posits of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” are unmistakable. R & G are given to pondering, with savory prattle and gymnastic rhetoric, not only their purpose in Denmark (as it appears to go “rotten” around them), the quandary of Hamlet’s “transformation,” but occasionally the question of which of them is which. That one’s costume is old elephant grey and other’s brown, doesn’t help either them or us distinguish who is who. Part of the play’s joke is their lack of identity. Costume designer Anne Kenney is not above whimsy in her period-evoking fashions in which Gertrude (Mary Dierson) and Claudius (Damian Buzzerio) are most amusingly considered. On one occasion the stiff flat shelf of Gertrude’s broad gown is used expediently by the Player as a counter for his drinking cup.
Meanwhile, the Player and his ravaged, world-weary troupe take the perimeter of the play and use it as a centerpiece for their own histrionic conspiracies. It is this exhilarating balance between R and G’s soft-peddled befuddlement and the tragedian’s gregarious let’s-sock-it-to-Elsinore theatrics that director Mullins has so skillfully entwined. Mahan’s somewhat slow-witted but endearing Rosencrantz and Conrad’s academically sure-footed Guildenstern make for an amusingly non-heroic pair.
Their ill-fated journey to literary oblivion is enhanced by a staging that emphasizes simplicity rather than derring-do. In this production we have to imagine the attack at sea by pirates through sound and lighting effects (the efforts of Karin Graybash and Shelly Sabel, respectively), while the comically florid tete-a-tetes provide some derring-do, often in a characterless black void.
Anne Bowles, as Ophelia, does more with one line and one brief appearance than many an actress has done with the entire role and play at her disposal. Anthony Marble’s unconventional Hamlet and Robert Lanchester’s droll Polonius, are refreshingly interpreted. Lanchester acted and directed at McCarter Theatre for 11 years and currently teaches and directs at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Although R & G is among the earliest of Stoppard plays, it has all the comic ingenuity and intellectual razzle-dazzle that has become his signature in all his plays, including “Jumpers,” “Arcadia,” “The Real Thing” and “The Invention of Love.” His newest work, “The Coast of Utopia,” will make its American premiere at Lincoln Center this fall.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” through Friday, June 30, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, F.M Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, on the campus of Drew University. $28 to $50. 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.