Good coin of Stoppard's realm

Theater Review


If anyone out there is searching for a good name for two lab rats, you might consider "Rosencrantz" and "Guildenstern."

The two main characters in Tom Stoppard's brilliant 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is receiving a solid staging by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, are as obsessed with freeing themselves, and as unable to escape, as any rodent trapped in a wire cage.

Though uncertain whether they will be rewarded or shocked, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern press all the available levers at once, because taking action - any action - feels better than doing nothing. They skitter across the floor and crawl up the walls, maneuvering for advantage, then become overwhelmed and crawl away to hide.

They are alternately brave and pathetic and contemptible. Just like us.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet who assume center stage in Stoppard's existentialist updating. Though the pair of spies/friends of Hamlet's dimly sense that they are part of a cosmic experiment, the only thing they know for certain is that they have been sent for. They learn later that their mission may have something to do with determining Hamlet's mental state and escorting the troubled prince to England. They don't have a clue as to who is making the rules or even what the rules are.

First performed 40 years ago, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern owes a debt not only to Shakespeare (scenes from the Bard's tragedy are woven seamlessly into the contemporary work) but also to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The relationship between Beckett's famous tramps, Gogo and Didi, bears an obvious resemblance to the bond between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Like Didi, the more cerebral Guildenstern watches over and consoles his impulsive friend, making decisions for them both. The apparent differences between the characters, however, are illusory; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are so enmeshed that they, literally, cannot remember who is who.

Stoppard's verbal dexterity holds up well after four decades, as do his meditations on destiny, free will and fate - not to mention death, divinity and theater. When the playwright needs a portentous omen, instead of the disruptions of nature and of the heavens so typical of Shakespeare's time, there is a coin that, when flipped, lands heads up 84 times in a row. Or, is it 92?

As Rosencrantz, Dana Whipkey cants forward from the waist, off-balance. His limbs fly about as recklessly as the loose curls on his head. He is visceral and childlike - but because he trusts his gut, he also is the more likely of the two to end up as the winner in any game of chance. Except, perhaps, for the ultimate game.

Joe Brady, who portrays Guildenstern, has a background as a comic, and his face has a comedian's plasticity. Like Play-Doh, Brady's visage momentarily absorbs all the colors around him before, seconds later, returning to its natural state.

The third great character is the Player King, and in Stoppard's version he has the impersonal malevolence of the purely pragmatic man. Tony Tsendeas plays the King with a greasy swagger. There is never a moment when Tsendeas is not posed. A front leg is extended with the toe pointed, as if ready to slide into a bow. A gloved hand dangles in midair, the fingers curled with a delicate irony.

The King also has the best speech of the play, a melodramatic, brilliant monologue in which he describes the humiliation felt by actors performing without an audience - and, perhaps, by humans who feel ignored by an indifferent God. "We ransomed our dignity to the clouds," the King says, "while the uncomprehending birds listened."

In Stoppard's vision, life is a coin toss. Heads you win. Tails we lose.

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