Among the bodies in the famous heap at the end of Hamlet, two are notably missing: the Melancholy Prince’s schoolmates (though Hamlet himself can’t seem to tell them apart), summoned by his usurper uncle to spy on him in his presumed madness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
It’s this uneasy anonymity in the highest profile of tragedies that Tom Stoppard hit upon for his breakthrough play of the ’60s, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a skewed buddy tale (though owing a lot to an off-beat parody of a much deeper comedy, Waiting for Godot).
Actors Ensemble is presently essaying Stoppard’s unmannerly comedy, under the able direction of Stanley Spenger at Live Oak Theatre. It’s not a bad Halloween treat, with its atmospherics of a rotting Elsinore Castle, from part of the beautifully painted set, a Gothic crypt, from Helen Pau’s Viaticum.
To describe what he was up to, Stoppard lifted a line from Jean Cocteau, saying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was a view of Elsinore as seen by tourists driving by. It is a playful piece of chance meetings, with ominous overtones that the meetings aren’t so chancy. The audience’s familiarity with Hamlet’s plot and the aura of fate borrowed from this great original give ballast to the burlesque sense of what goes on behind the famous scenes and soliloquies.
What are the other characters saying or whispering?
According to Stop-pard, not much: just killing time and trying to square their seemingly meaningless lives with the bigger issues playing out around them, in which they find themselves caught up and finally swept away. It opens with the two pitching coins, which seem to fall heads up, against all probability, and closes at sea, a road trip to England, the voyage wherein Hamlet is spirited away by pirates, but not before he makes the switch of a secret order of execution.
On the way, the ill-starred pair meet up with the band of itinerant players Hamlet ends up hiring for his mousetrap to catch the king. The players make a kind of mirror between one play and another, the venerable tragedy and contemporary comedy.
Harold Pierce shines as the resilient and matter-of-fact Player King, good at dying over and over, or knowing when to slip away. Marcus Liefert plays a truly doddering Polonius, who all but paralyzes Claudius (Jerome Solberg) and Gertrude (Melanie Curry), offering up Ophelia (Wendy Welch, who seems made for the part) to the Prince (a slightly punkish Ariel Herzog), who spurns her famously. Snippets of Hamlet are cleverly shoehorned into this study of the least of his retainers, played by Patrick Glenn and Gabriel Ross, each taking up the slack for the other—even though they, too, can’t really tell themselves apart.
It’s a long play, not as long as Hamlet, but sometimes hitting doldrums when Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern quibble over inconsequentials without the sharp edge of British club humor. But in the end, even though “the rest is silence,” even those quibbles are caught up in the sweep of artistry that grants an elusive meaning to life and lives.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.through Nov.17. 525-1620.