There is a beautiful, sublime thread in the universe. It can be found in the modern films of Charlie Kaufman, and it flows back in time through Monty Python, and some say, all the way to Aristophanes’ comedies in ancient Greece. It is the thread of self-referential, “meta” humor. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead is chock-full of it, and that’s a very good thing.
Stoppard is perhaps best known for co-writing the screenplays to Brazil (if you have not seen this 1985 gem, stop reading immediately and add it to your Netflix queue!) and Shakespeare in Love. He first achieved widespread fame, however, with his Tony Award-winning 1964 play Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead.
Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but one need not be a Shakespearean scholar or aficionado to enjoy Stoppard’s play.
What one should do, however, is have a quick refresher on the bare-bones plot of Hamlet. As not a single film version of Hamlet– no, not even the 1948 Laurence Olivier version– is available to instant-stream on Netflix, my wife read us the Wiki plotline while I drove to the majestic Queen Mary to see California Reportory’s current production. (We highly recommend doing the same, as the 1948 Olivier film is horribly melodramatic, and, c’mon, isn’t it cool that you can bone up on Hamlet between bouts of “Words with Friends?”) One of the most relevant bits-o-trivia to take away from all this is that Hamlet contains a play-within-a-play: one scene involves the characters watching a play (The Murder of Gonzago).
The jumping-off point for Stoppard’s play is a question: Have you ever wondered what happens to characters (not the actors, but the characters) when they are off-screen or off-stage? Stoppard answers this question by taking us into a world which is essentially Hamlet turned inside out. We see Rosencrantz and Gildenstern’s lives in-between the scenes that they perform in Hamlet. They mull over the events, characters, and motivations that unfold in their few Hamlet scenes, trying to make sense of their roles/lives, and uncertain future.
Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead (henceforth R&GaD) in contemporary English, so the audience need not attempt to divine meaning from Shakespeare’s nearly indecipherable, 16th Century Middle English. What the audience is asked to do, however, is to divine meaning from the play itself. Rather than being a chore, however, this is thoroughly enjoyable. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern sometimes break the “fourth wall,” addressing the audience directly or calling attention to elements of the set or plays; I say “plays” rather than “play” because there are three plays going on: Hamlet, The Murder of Gonzago (the play within Hamlet) and, of course, the play you paid to see– R&GaD! All this sounds much more confusing than it actually is. It is Rosencrantz and Gildenstern who are the most befuddled; the audience is along for the ride, and it is indeed an enjoyable one.
Of course, Stoppard’s point is that we are all Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. We are all on the stage of life, interacting with other characters that are part of some larger plot and forces. None of us knows what fate the next scene brings.
California Repertory’s artistic director, Thomas Cooke, deliciously complicates the triple-layer of plays by adding a fourth into the mix: a multi-media set inspired by a magic box and movie theatre. “We’re going to have that interplay between the screen and the stage, the two media that give life to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and we’re going to have characters come from the screen and into the screen, so they will kind of morph out, back and forth,” Cooke said, in Cal Rep’s press release about the show. “Having the interaction with film, rather than live theatre, will give us another dimension of this time and space warp in which Rosencrantz and Gildenstern find themselves.” This was accomplished by editing short scenes from Laurence Olivier’s performance of Hamlet into faux-vintage scenes of Cal Rep’s performers. The production value here was exceptional; one would not be able to discern which scenes were from the original 1948 film or the modern production, were it not for the unmistakable visages of Cal Rep thespians Craig Anton (as Rosencrantz) and John Prosky (as Gildenstern). The costumes of Cal Rep’s production are dead-ringers for those from the 1948 film. Yet another “meta” aspect of the play is that much of the music of the play is performed live, on the “stage within the stage,” by the “cast within the cast.”
Our protagonists never miss a beat. Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, their banter is flavored with absurdity, humor, and occasional philosophical profundity. Anton and Prosky (as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern) are absolutely brilliant, as is Robert Prior (as “The Player”), whose performance can only be described as virtuosic. In fact, the only small snafu in the production was the absence of Mark Piatelli (as Hamlet), necessitating the use of an understudy.
Self-referential humor and “meta-humor” were once hardly seen or heard in America, but in the past 15 years or so it has gone mainstream, creeping into everything from The Simpsons to South Park. But R&GaD does not seem trite. It has been imitated, but rarely equaled. Nothing beats the original.
Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead will play at the Royal Theatre located aboard the Queen Mary through May 12. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students, military and seniors (55 and older). Parking is $8 for theatre patrons and $6 for students or those dining aboard the ship. For tickets and more information, call (562) 985-5526 or visit calrep.org.