Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Running through May 13 at 7:30 p.m.
The Dark Room, 145 Calhoun St.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead must be one of the hardest plays in the Western canon to produce. The myriad layers of this work, beyond playwright Tom Stoppard’s purported simple goal of “entertainment,” are enough to make anyone’s head spin. Echoes of Waiting for Godot, existentialism, an analysis of Hamlet itself, psychological and theological musings, an understanding of meta-theatre, and comic timing all place huge burdens on Theatre/’verv/ with their latest selection. While the acting is admirable — even great at times — and the direction is crisp and precise, Theatre/’verv/’s production doesn’t fully measure up to the many challenges Stoppard’s play presents.

Stoppard’s chief characters are the two minor players in Hamlet sent to accompany the melancholy Dane to his certain death (by delivering him, along with a letter asking for his execution, to the King of England), only to be found out and betrayed by Hamlet himself. Stoppard, though, places them in a timeless, place-less setting as they await news of their old friend Hamlet and try to figure out where they are, why they’re there, and what they’re supposed to do.

The parallels to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and absurdism in general are immediately obvious. Two characters wait in futility and wonder about life, death, the nature of being, fate, the effect they have on their own lives, etc. R&G, however, has its differences, the meta-theatrical element being a major one. The audience is constantly aware that they’re watching a play about a play; characters and even exact lines from Hamlet are thrown in, the group of players which Hamlet commissions shows up, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves continuously wander the perimeters of the playing area.

Conway (with assistant direction by Jamie George, who also plays one of the tragedians) deftly handles these moments of theatricalism, with synchronized choreography that’s so natural one almost doesn’t notice. He mirrors the meandering trains of thought in the blocking, but also keeps them contained so they don’t lose their energy in wandering abstraction. But Conway is hurt by his own visible presence throughout the piece. With the technical booth being on the stage itself, it’s distracting to see him with the blue cast of a monitor illuminating him as he orchestrates the technical cues. Whether that’s accidental or by design, it doesn’t work.

For poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a force greater than Conway directs their lives. They spend a good portion of the play trying to figure out what that is. These two characters require tremendous range and perfect timing, inflection, and pace to keep the piece from becoming monotonous. And while Beth Curley (crossing genders as Guildenstern) and David Barr are extremely talented, bringing considerable personality to their characters, there is something missing. Perhaps it’s the element of deeper seriousness amidst the comedy.

Guildenstern, the thinker, tries to rationalize and philosophize, trying to stay active with games and discussions. Rosencrantz (Barr) is the calmer of the two, the one more at peace with what’s going on, for the most part (he has several moments of almost childlike introspection). While Guildenstern wants to discuss probability and averages, Rosencrantz wants to discuss toenail growth. Yet the two are seen by other characters as interchangeable (even they forget which one is which), as if they are two halves of the same person. In this respect, Curley and Barr do a fantastic job. They play off of each other well, and the staging helps in this respect.

Curtis Worthington, as the leader of the group of traveling tragedians/pornographers, is appropriately over-the-top and confident. He entertains as he tries to persuade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accept their fate and the way things are destined to play out (even so far as to say the ending is “written”).

“What a fine persecution: to be kept intrigued but never enlightened,” says Guildenstern. The line sums up the current offering from this otherwise talented group. The acting and direction are mostly well done, but the dialogue and construction of Stoppard’s play require more than it’s given here, leaving the audience more in the dark than it should be.