It’s telling that when “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” ran on Broadway from 1967 to 1968, it was nominated for six Tony Awards, won four and ran for just a year and three days. It is a challenging play, full of philosophizing, nuances and complexities.
Tom Stoppard’s absurdist tragi-comedy was one of the opening acts of Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria, a celebration of literature and the arts.
The title characters were created by Shakespeare, who assigned them small but significant roles in “Hamlet.” They are the prince’s boyhood friends, summoned by Claudius to spy on Hamlet and determine the source of his madness. They are instructed to deliver a letter that, unbeknownst to them, condemns Hamlet to death. (That part of the plot backfires.)
In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the main event. They are stuck on stage, waiting for their next dramatic turn. Snippets of “Hamlet” are performed around them, but they are limited in their ability to respond. They have no back story, just active minds engaged in wordplay and random musings.
Director Tom Hollis could have done the actors a huge favor by quickening the laborious pace. The erudite script assigns enormous amounts of dialogue to three leading actors. They do an admirable job of memorization and delivery but are bogged down in avoidably repetitious conceits.
The time they spend tossing coins could be cut by 50 percent. Ditto for the time Rosencrantz runs up and down a ramp to report Hamlet’s activities. (That was funny twice.)
Tyson Hamilton plays Guildenstern, seemingly the more inquisitive at the start. Kyle Wilson plays Rosencrantz as a goofy straight man, egging Hamilton on to expansively contemplative monologues. They swap roles throughout the play as they discuss the theory of probability, the law of diminishing returns, redistribution of wealth and the form of reasoning called “syllogism.” (That’s a sample of how their minds wander.)
Shakespeare’s major “Hamlet” characters play minor roles, with the exception of Larry Wu as The Player and his theatrical troupe of tragedians. Wu is a dominating force who educates his companions about life by juxtaposing it with death. His troupe provides a tertiary play within the secondary play of “Hamlet” within the primary play. It’s heady stuff.
The subjects discussed are as strange as the wit applied to them. Common experience is explained via the example of a unicorn. The definition of the future is pondered: “One is having one all the time. And now. And now.” The Player feels the three elements of drama are blood, love and rhetoric, and he can’t do love and rhetoric without the blood.
Stoppard’s credits include screenplays for “Empire of the Sun,” “Brazil,” 2012’s “Anna Karenina” and many plays. His writing is pristine. But with a run time of close to three hours, at some point the audience may yearn for the title to be realized.
‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: CPCC’s Pease Auditorium, 1200 Sam Ryburn Walk.
Running time: 170 minutes.
Details: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu