Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is a modern-theater classic that is usually described as telling the story of “Hamlet” through the eyes of two minor characters. It does do that, but as the current production at Pioneer Theatre Company so deftly points out, it’s far more complex than it would be if it relied solely on that gimmick.
The two characters, childhood friends of Hamlet’s who are called in to figure out why he’s acting crazy, interact briefly with Hamlet and other “Hamlet” characters. The rest of the time, it’s the two of them alone on stage, talking a lot like “Seinfeld” characters, who in turn talked a lot like Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.” In other words, there’s a lot of quasi-philosophy, wordplay, and rambling about nothing (like Rosencrantz’s dissertation on the phenomenon of an ordinary word like “wife” suddenly looking like it’s not spelled right, even though you know it is).
Rosencrantz (Jonathan Hammond) and Guildenstern (John Leonard Thompson) are two characters in search of their place — not just in life, but in the play “Hamlet” (though they never fully realize they’re in a play). They are generally assumed to be interchangeable in “Hamlet,” a fact underscored by their constant inability even to tell themselves apart. They know they’ve been friends with Hamlet since childhood, but only because they’ve been told that; they have no actual memory of it. In other words, their lives only exist within the framework of “Hamlet,” where they’ve been summoned to the castle by King Claudius. Yet now, for some unknown reason, they are at center stage, for all intents and purposes the ONLY characters in the play — a situation so cosmically backwards that they don’t know what to do about it.
In “Hamlet,” we only see them when they show up to talk to Hamlet. So in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” we see them talking about how they’re supposed to go talk to Hamlet, and then we see them sitting around waiting for a chance to talk to Hamlet. In other words, even though this is their show, they still don’t accomplish any more than they do in “Hamlet.” It’s Tom Stoppard’s huge joke to the world: You want to know what minor characters do when they’re not onstage? You think that would be an interesting approach? Well, guess what. They don’t do ANYTHING when they’re not onstage, because they don’t EXIST when they’re not onstage.
Hammond and Thompson are excellent as the title characters, with a chemistry that makes the show work. One senses that, as different as they are — Rosencrantz is fussy and impatient, while Guildenstern is logical and erudite — they really are best friends who could not function without each other. And this is literally true: How often do you hear of one mentioned without the other? They exist only as a pair, which is why a bond between the actors is so essential. Hammond and Thompson find that bond, and they carry the show through some of its more obtuse and difficult moments with humor and finesse.
Guildenstern is intent on finding order in the universe, and can’t figure out why the normal laws of probability and logic don’t seem to apply to them. The reason, which they never figure out, is that they’re characters in a play, and the laws of the universe don’t apply to fiction. These are characters who ALMOST know they’re in a play — they occasionally ALMOST speak directly to the audience — yet they never become fully aware of it. If they did, they could perhaps control their destiny. As it is, they are at the whim of William Shakespeare, whose will it is that they be killed at the end. It’s a sad and strangely powerful ending to an intelligent, unusual play.
This is a difficult show to do well, what with all the talking and doing nothing and being weird, but Pioneer pulled it off pretty well.