Tom Stoppard called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “the most expendable people of all time.” Minor courtiers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they barely exist beyond their Renaissance finery and snatches of dialogue. They aim to please, pretty much, and will bend toward the slightest favoring breeze.
King Claudius ordered Hamlet’s pals — hereafter Ros and Guil — to spy on Hamlet, find out if he’s crazy or just faking it. Being minor espionage agents says something about their value in court, you’d think. But when the Danish Prince dances witty circles around them, their credibility disappears. The king must have chosen them because they were so expendable.
UCSD Theatre opened its new season with a jazzy yet thoughtful version of Stoppard’s comi-tragedy (1967). When a company stages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which is rare, since the play makes unique demands, the costume designer usually dips into the Renaissance collection for a behind-the-scenes Hamlet. Ros and Guil become cardboard pawns on the margin of a national tragedy: a sort of Waiting for Godot at Elsinore Castle.
UCSD director Adam Arian took a different tack. Ros and Guil wear brown-checked suits (à la super-sleuths Sherlock Holmes and Watson) and bowler hats (à la Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon), and you think: oh, a late–Victorian-Edwardian period piece. Okay. But then a pulsing rhythm and white neon stripes announce that Hamlet isn’t the only one “transformed” in Denmark. The king and his court have gone goth: white faces, black outfits, shoulders twitching in unison to an anti-disco beat. They’re in a headlong saturnalia, either to celebrate Claudius’s reign or just to par-tay har-tay in a Rocky Horror template.
And Hamlet? White T-shirt (his name spray-painted across it), black Levi’s, and diamond chains dangling from a black leather belt: Joel Gelman makes the Dane a hyperextended maniac ever about to rip through his own skin. He may be mad only “north, northwest,” but that’s when he takes his meds. And of late, it’s clear he hasn’t.
The Players, led by eloquent, volatile Irungu Mutu as their leader, haven’t performed in so long they’re forgetting their repertoire. Once purists of the “blood, love, and rhetoric school,” now troubling economic times have forced them to become, says Guil, “a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes.” Their postapocalyptic, catch-as-catch-can garb is a riot of bright reds and yellows. You sense that, if they don’t find an audience soon, they’ll de-morph into the floorboards.
At first, UCSD’s wild take on the material requires an adjustment. Those expecting stately rhetorical flourishes and “a noble mind o’er-thrown” are in for a shock. But the radical transformation works because, from their perspective, Ros and Guil are also o’er-thrown. Like Alice through the looking glass, or a side step into a parallel universe where similarities drift into differences, Ros and Guil enter an uncertain, possibly even unknowable realm with one purpose: to find out what their purpose is.
Stoppard runs a deep irony through his three-act, three-hour play. In their modest, bumbling way, Ros and Guil mirror Hamlet’s plight, in a minor key: like the Dane they need to act but don’t know how, since every clue opens to a new mystery; like Hamlet they give advice to the Players and generate theatrical metaphors willy-nilly; and like Hamlet, only at least twice more, they do extended “to be or not to be” meditations on life and death. And here the young Stoppard struts his stuff, vying with the Bard for the last word on last things: “Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.”
On Rob Tintoc’s deceptively simple set, the audience sits on two sides, facing each other, with a polished wooden walkway in between. At both ends, wedgelike platforms mirror each other. Wherever Ros and Guil turn, the stage traps them. They can’t escape, just disappear (appropriate since as fictional characters they have no outside existence). In fact, they have no before or after. They’re stuck with the one-dimensionality Shakespeare gave them. No matter how many times they flip one, a coin will always come up heads.
Ros and Guil are destined to die on the ship taking Hamlet to England. And their fate’s been inscribed on the floor (which becomes the ship’s deck in act 3) all along.
Stoppard wrote that Ros and Guil sprang from a dialogue he carries out with himself: one “fairly intellectual, fairly incisive,” the other “thicker, nicer in a curious way, more sympathetic.” Johnny Wu’s Guildenstern’s the strident rationalist. He gains humor, and a kind of admiration, for his repeated attempts to figure things out. In a casting choice that’s a surprise, at first, the program says a woman will play Rosencrantz. Is she a woman playing a man? Is Ros a woman, a cross-dresser? Once Jessica Watkins steps on stage, however, these questions, though interesting in theory, vanish. In a wonderfully memorable performance — such an eloquent vulnerability! — Watkins, it turns out, was the right choice for the role.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Forum Studio, Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, 9500 Gilman Drive, UCSD
Directed by Adam Arian; cast: Johnny Wu, Jessica Watkins, Irungu Mutu, Pearl Rhein, Joel Gelman, Hugo Medina, Cate Campbell, Zoe Chao, Kyle Anderson, Ed De Los Reyes, Lee Montgomery, Brett Rader, Joanna Stern; scenic design, Rob Tintoc; costumes, Christine Crook; lighting, Stephen Sakowski; sound, Christopher M. Luessmann
Playing through November 22; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. 858-534-4574.