ROSENCRANTZ and Guildenstern'' makes a very easy transfer from stage to screen. It may even be an improvement over the stage version because it's shorter.
Tom Stoppard, who wrote the play and directed it, also did the script for this admirable film version. It has an immensely clever -- premise. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Shakespeare's ''Hamlet.'' Boyhood friends of the melancholy Dane, they are asked by the king -- Hamlet's stepfather -- to determine if Hamlet's madness is real or feigned.
Dispatched to London along with Hamlet, they have been given a letter asking the English king to dispose of Hamlet. Hamlet, to whom murder seems to come easy, writes another letter, switches it with his stepfather's letter and causes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be put to death.
That's about all the time Shakespeare gave the pair. Stoppard gives them much more, but he is not one to dwell on tragedy, at least not this time. Here, he has comedy in mind.
The film doesn't begin that well. For 10 minutes or so, the principals toss a coin into the air, to the point of boredom, both theirs and ours. The tossing finished, we watch as Guildenstern makes eating noises (something we are seeing and hearing with increasing regularity, as though we don't have enough of it in the theaters themselves).
It helps to know ''Hamlet,'' but it isn't really necessary to enjoy the film. Most of ''Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'' is pure Stoppard, with a contribution here and there by Shakespeare.
Much of the time, Stoppard has his two couriers engage in horseplay while the play itself is going on elsewhere. On occasion, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not actually participating in the dramatics of ''Hamlet,'' they act as unseen observers who wander the halls of the castle.
Gary Oldman is Rosencrantz, and Tim Roth is Guildenstern. At times they bring Abbott and Costello to mind. Some of their dialogue is a tonier version of the material the comedy team used.
Most of the humor is soft, but some is quite obvious. It is all, however, welcome. Rosencrantz, for instance, is always discovering the principles of physics, an apple falling from a tree, a body dispersing water, that sort of thing. Oldman is very good at bringing this off. Richard Dreyfuss is the leader of the acting company that will be used, by Hamlet, to accuse his stepfather of murder. Dreyfuss, particularly when he is demonstrating the versatility of his players, is every bit as able as the stars.
'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,'' showing at the Greenspring Cinema, is largely a listen piece. You have to pay attention, but it is well worth the investment.
''Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'' *** Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, boyhood friends of Hamlet, are the principal characters in a comedy-drama written by Tom Stoppard.
CAST: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss, Iain Glen, Joanna Miles
DIRECTOR: Tom Stoppard
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes.