Waiting for Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard’s absurdist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead finds itself onstage once again with at least two sympathetic actors in tow. In this go-around, Oroville’s Birdcage Theatre hosts the three-act “serious comedy” with antic grace and, whether intentionally or not, enough self-consciousness to bring out the play’s anxious pathos—an essentially Elizabethan worldview undergoing analysis.

First performed in 1966 by Oxford University students as part of the Edinburgh Festival’s fringe offerings and rendered less successfully as a 1990 film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead follows the nonadventures of Hamlet’s two college friends as they wander, clueless, along the road to Elsinore and subsequently into the middle of a famous tragedy for which they’re clearly unprepared. Unsure as they are of even their own identities, they spend much of their time entangled in a sort of Shakespearean who’s-on-first scenario and, true to the genre, waiting for something to happen.

Bret Lawson portrays the philosophically fretful Guildenstern, and Damon Robison is a rather childlike and distracted Rosencrantz. Both provide crisp timing to the other’s sallies and a believable friendship that buoys the action’s inclination for wordy ennui. Help also comes from Larry Root, as head brigand of the licentious strolling players en route to perform, as it were, the play within the play within the play. Root’s mercurial observations offer a will-o-the-wisp omniscience to the two courtiers’ confusion, while his threadbare actors manage some amusing business rummaging through a cart of tricks, cross-dressing, donning comic hats and otherwise fidgeting out their destinies.

As Hamlet, John Maphet, handsomely arrayed like a Tarot-card page, brings a cunning, self-satisfied quality to the Dane’s madness ("stark, raving sane,” concludes Rosencrantz in Act Two) and steers sympathy instead toward his floundering friends.

Kudos to Shirley Bugado’s direction, to the detailed costumes, the minimalist but snappy set, but above all to the intelligent presentation of Stoppard’s often subtle, witty dialogue ("Empiricism!" howls Guildenstern to Rosencrantz. "Is that all you have to offer?"). The Birdcage crew are enjoying themselves with this latest effort, and you will too.