On the high-tragedy chessboard of Hamlet, these two are the pawns. The stooges. The dispensable and interchangeable Mr. Joneses written into the margins. But in Tom Stoppard’s spooky, hilarious, and ingenious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (directed by Andrew Sokoloff for Mad Horse), they are, existentially, the stars. The Big Play goes on around them somewhere. Occasionally it descends, bewilderingly, upon them. And the rest of the time, caught in a limbo of place and purpose, they hang around, flip coins, and try to figure out what the hell’s going on. Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing there? Can they leave? Who has sent for them, and why? Just what, both practically and rhetorically speaking, is it all about? Stoppard’s magnificent exploration of the human role receives a rich and affecting performance by Mad Horse, and it would be a travesty to miss it.
Anyone familiar with Hamlet (or with the title of this play, in fact), understands that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (David Currier and Peter Brown) are marked for death. It’s long been written. Shortly after they take Hamlet off to England, it’ll be end game for them both. Unaware of that themselves, Ros and Guil — as searching, irritable, and endearing as Beckett’s Gogo and Didi — take stabs at the timeless themes of Hamlet: fate, human agency, and art as the “mirror to nature.” They banter, speculate, and stumble through their scenes with Hamlet’s big players, trying to understand, on various levels, the nature of the play.
To make the analogy a little more colorful, enter the seductively omniscient Player (Chris Horton) and his silent, seedy entourage of actors (fine mimes Brent Askari, Burke Brimmer, Bob Colby, Dale Stockburger, and — in drag with a zany, wanton mousiness — Keith Anctil). These guys already know all about the play. “In our experience,” the Player confides, “most things end in death.” As the actors scuttle about presenting their scripts, they set the stage for the most enduring of theater metaphors. “We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off,” explains the Player. “Which has a certain integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”
These existential scenes, under Sokoloff’s able direction, come off with immensely satisfying vigor, intelligence, and empathy. On the bare stage, Currier and Brown call up their characters’ confusion, grim wit, longing, and occasional delight with tones and glances that are both comic and heartbreaking. The delight and disbelief in their eyes as the coins keep turning up heads, Ros’s dead-pan angst as he weighs being dead versus alive in a box, Guil’s fear and scorn for the actors who act out death — Currier and Brown make these all so human that it’s both wrenching and a relief to laugh.
The production includes some of Portland’s veteran thespians in supporting roles (also including Craig Bowden as Hamlet, Christine Louise Marshall as Gertrude, and Ariel Francoeur as Ophelia) and they have an authoritative unity as they swirl their scenes in and out of Ros and Guil’s empty set. The Player’s acting troupe performs some well-timed and absurdly entertaining scene-stealers for all you groundlings out there. Look for their rehearsal of the play they’ll later show to the King, an excellent romp of camped-up miming that includes quite a variety of sex acts.