The lives of minor characters are difficult ones. They are at the mercy of higher powers—such as the narrative of the protagonist and the schemes of the antagonist—or they are simply caught in the swirling chaos of action. Embedded within major productions, they have very little will of their own, and are easily sacrificed on the altar of plot progression. But they have conflicts and concerns, albeit ones that are never told on stage—unless one thinks of “every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
In precisely this way, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”—which is being performed at the Pearl Theatre in repertory with “Hamlet” through Feb. 1—pulls back the curtain to reveal the eponymous characters’ experiences as an entirely opposite way of examining an age-old classic.
Summoned by a messenger from Elsinore, Rosencrantz (Grant Fletcher Prewitt) and Guildenstern (Ian Gould) journey together, with Guildenstern attempting to figure out why coins have landed heads 92 consecutive times. On their way, they stumble across some out-of-work actors, led by the Player (Darien Battle), who offers to perform a play for them. But before it can begin, the two friends are swept into the world of “Hamlet.” After seeing Hamlet with Ophelia and then being introduced to the king and queen, the two find out what their task is: to discover what afflicts the seemingly addled Prince of Denmark.
Although they strategize about how they will accomplish the task, they are outwitted by Hamlet (John Skelley). Meanwhile, the players they met on the road arrive to perform a play for the king and queen. But this is of little concern to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are increasingly worried about their tenuous position. Trapped in this world of confusing palace intrigue without even certain knowledge of their own individual names, they agree to take Hamlet to England by ship, only to have their fate sealed in a letter. Upon the ship, they once again come across the players, who act out the final deaths in “Hamlet.” After questioning their fate, as well as who they are that they should be killed, they resign themselves to the death that was always coming to them.
A short summary cannot adequately capture Stoppard’s brilliance, which echoes with existential and absurdist themes while retaining the skeleton of Shakespeare’s tragedy, including all of the lines that the two protagonists are within earshot of.
Unfortunately, Gould could not capture it either. While he had some strong moments, such as his final scene, he lacked the consistent energy that makes the snappy dialogue crackle. Prewitt was more even, although he relied too heavily on shouting to convey emotion. Shockingly, Hamlet, portrayed quite forcefully and convincingly by Skeller, was deprived of his “What a piece of work is a man” monologue, which is a catalyst for the events that occur before and after it. Director John Rando decided to literally fast-forward over the monologue, possibly expecting the audience to have a strong familiarly with the play’s progenitor. As the Player, the only wise man in the room, Battle delivered his performance with great flare and verve, which helped to offset some of the disappointment. While it was wonderful to see such a complex script come to life, without a strong rapport between the two leads the production leaves something to be desired.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs at The Pearl Theatre (555 W. 42nd St.) through Feb. 1. Tickets start at $35.