This mortal coil

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

At left, RN&R contributor and title character Scott Reeves (Rosencrantz) gets the lay of the land from Joshua Jessup (Guildenstern).

At left, RN&R contributor and title character Scott Reeves (Rosencrantz) gets the lay of the land from Joshua Jessup (Guildenstern).

Photo By Nick Higman

Rated 3.0

If you’re like me, you sometimes pass strangers on the street and wonder about their lives. Where are they going? Are they happy? If they died, who would mourn them? Though they’re only extras in the movie of your life, they have their own complicated stories. In its current production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Reno Little Theater tackles a play that examines some of these questions to brilliant comedic and philosophical effect.

R&GAD is a tragicomedy that takes two minor characters from Hamlet and turns that play inside out to tell their story—as well as that of the famous Danish prince—from the perspective of two hapless guys who don’t know what the hell is going on. It’s a viewpoint with which many a high school sophomore could relate, but it’s anything but sophomoric. Playwright Tom Stoppard combines the most complex psychological portrait in English literature with his own healthy dose of existentialist musing. And it’s hilarious.

The action begins with the title characters traveling to Elsinore, where newly-crowned King Claudius has summoned them to figure out Hamlet’s erratic behavior. Why them? Well, they’re not sure. Nor are they sure of the distinction between their identities or even where they woke up that morning. On their way, they meet a traveling band of actors—fatefully, the same troupe that Hamlet will hire to stage Shakespeare’s famous play-within-a-play designed to expose Claudius. Accordingly, shenanigans ensue. Upon arrival, the duo is effortlessly outwitted by the possibly insane Hamlet (a role which, for the purposes of this play, Nestor Campos Jr. pretty much nails). Poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; it’s hard to diagnose someone when you’re hanging onto your own identity by a thread. It doesn’t help that the limits of their existence coincide roughly with the textual boundaries of Shakespeare’s play.

The production is carried well by (RN&R contributor) Scott Reeves and Joshua Jessup as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively (or is it the other way around?). Reeves enjoyably teeters between panic and ignorant bliss, and as the more grounded Guildenstern (who is only slightly more on-the-ball), Jessup is the show’s brightest light. His ease onstage belies the difficulty of the script, and his fleeting glimpses of philosophical truth pack an excellent punch. In the interest of fair criticism, their banter doesn’t always have the right rhythm, but that might smooth out before the production’s final weekend.

Aside from wit, R&GAD‘s chief themes are fate and mortality, and this production meets them head on. Guildenstern’s lucid realization at the end of Act II that he and his companion can’t control their lives, and Rosencrantz’s ominous third-act refrain that “it will be dark soon” are both chillingly effective.

Though the production has a strong grasp of Stoppard’s script, it does miss some opportunities. For example, the dialogue Stoppard imports from Hamlet for the buffoonish Polonius is comic gold. However, Bob Gabrielli’s Polonius, though well-acted, is merely another moving piece in the machine of the plot. Ditto for Claudius (Dale Fast) and Gertrude (Diane Peters), who deliver their lines with enough facility but don’t cash in on the strong characterizations that are ripe for the taking.

Generally, the production is quite capable, if a little flat in spots. RLT should be commended for undertaking such difficult, cerebral material, and I look forward to seeing the company’s continuing evolution of challenging, interesting work. In the meantime, theater-lovers ought to pay a script-flipped visit to Elsinore to see how the other half lives … and dies.