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To be and not to be.

In Tom Stoppard's philosophical farce, "dead" is a relative term. The title says Hamlet's boyhood chums have passed away. But whenever the play begins anew, they come back alive, groggy with amnesia, and wonder where they are and why.

That 90 consecutive coin-flips come up "heads" doesn't help to find their bearings.

The stage resembles a stuck two-sided coin. Behind the rear wall's another stage, where either a company is performing Hamlet, or the actual story's taking place.

"We don't know what's going on," Guildenstern complains, "or what to do with ourselves. We don't know how to act."

In effect, Stoppard does a theatrical flip: two minor characters from Shakespeare's tragedy take center stage. And like the melancholic prince of Denmark, they wonder about death.

And life, which the Player says, "is a gamble, at terrible odds - if it was a bet you wouldn't take it."

R &G have a purpose: the king orders them to spy on Hamlet and "glean" what ails him.

And they try. But Hamlet's double-edged as well: "Half of what he said meant something else, and the other half meant nothing at all."

Since they're alone about half the time, and resemble Samuel Beckett's famous clowns Vladimir and Estragon, you could subtitle the play Waiting for Hamlet.

At OnStage Playhouse, Paul Morgavo's funny, thoughtful Guildenstern solves one problem right off the bat: he could have been Hamlet's former friend. He combines a burning need to know with fluid literacy (in G's verbal flights you can hear the young Stoppard straining to rival the Bard, at times to excess).

Morgavo's assurred, touching work anchors a production rough at the edges and unevenly acted.

William Grazier has many comic moments as the perpetually puzzled Rosencrantz (who can't remember his name). But a persistent, scrunch-eyed puzzlement begs for other reactions.

Randy Coull gives the Player - a human handbook on the craft, and hazards, of acting - a seedy desperation. And Steve Murcock makes old Polonius an eerie space-case.

Though co-directed, the production lacks polish. The "Tragedians" - the actors brought to court - often stand around, as if unsure what to do, or overplay obvious choices, as do the men playing women.

Tony Bejarano and Teri Brown's costumes combine Renaissance finery with today. R &G sport dapper vests and ties, as if upscale versions of Beckett's legendary duo.

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