English playwright Tom Stoppard is best known as co-author of the fascinating and hilarious film “Shakespeare in Love,” which transfixed much of the theater world a couple of years ago and for which he won an Academy Award.
On Saturday, California Shakespeare Festival opened an imaginative and largely successful production of Stoppard’s most famous stageplay, the 1966 existential comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” an ingenious reworking of selected material from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet.”
In turning pieces of the world’s most famous tragedy into a bawdy, slapstick comedy, Stoppard’s flashy intellectual drama takes two minor characters from “Hamlet” – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – and fleshes out their story.
In Shakespeare’s play, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are old childhood friends of Hamlet whom his murderous uncle Claudius summons to court when Hamlet starts behaving suspiciously. Claudius bribes the two ineffectual former school chums to spy on Hamlet, and report back to him.
But Hamlet turns the tables on his old pals at the end of the play, and they are executed in a case of mistaken identity.
In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two quintessential anti-heroes, like characters out of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In the banter back and forth between the two, they also bear some resemblance to Laurel and Hardy.
In the play’s opening scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are gambling by flipping a coin. The coin comes up heads more than 90 times in a row, and two ponder the meaning of the laws of probability, and consider whether or not it is possible to violate those laws.
That sets the tone for the play, which Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone, who directed this production, describes as “two characters wandering into an imaginary landscape, and then getting run over by it.”
The Cal Shakes production has its ups and downs. Strong scenes alternate with less strong scenes. At times on opening night, the show seemed like it hadn’t quite pulled itself together, and might still be a performance or two away from hitting full stride.
For example, the opening coin-flipping scene between the two leads was slow and seemed to lack a focus. It never really caught fire.
The production really heated up, however, in the following scene when the Players from Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” arrive.
The Players are an important part of “Hamlet.” Their re-enactment, at Hamlet’s instruction, of his father’s murder, unmasks a killer.
In Stoppard’s play, when the Players meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the road, a witty discussion ensues about the reality and unreality of theater, and the relationship between pornography and classic art. As the lead player, Patrick Kerr steals this scene.
Although the Cal Shakes production tic-tocs back and forth between strong and less strong scenes, many aspects of Moscone’s staging are thoughtful and complex.
There are lots of physical bits between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that punctuate and clarify their on-going existential intellectual debate.
This is an energetic physical production that, although it is not a musical, makes use of a choreographer (K.T. Nelson) to help the actors with skips, jumps, hops, leaps and silly walks built into a staging that at times has the feel of a clown show.
The lead performances are good, except both Sam Catlin (Rosencrantz) and Liam Craig (Guildenstern) feel the need to take on somewhat artificial-sounding English accents in the characters. This isn’t necessary, any more than it is necessary in American productions of Shakespeare.
Craig’s Guildenstern had, for example, a lower class accent that would not fit with his being the boyhood friend of a prince.
On one occasion he pronounced the word “glad” to rhyme with “rod.” That’s not a correct British pronunciation.
The not-quite-authentic accents are just a distraction.
Scenic designer Christopher Akerlind employs the same set that the company used for its last show “Hamlet,” but instead of painting it morbid black, he has painted it bright red and dayglo green. When the Players make their first appearance on stage, it is in an old red VW bug convertible.
Meg Neville’s costumes are also red and green (red for Rosencrantz and green for Guildenstern), except that the colors are reversed, with Rosencrantz wearing green, and Guildenstern wearing red – a commentary on how other characters in the play repeatedly get the two mixed up.
Sound designer Garth Hemphill’s Fellini-esque carnival music sets an appropriate tone at the start of the play.
Says Guildenstern just before their deaths, “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it.”
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” plays Tuesday through Sunday, through Aug. 19, at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. There is plenty of free parking, and a free shuttle from the Orinda BART station. For tickets call 548-9666, or visit the website (www.calshakes.org). Dress warmly.