Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

Tom Stoppard’s surreal comedy “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead,” being performed with “Hamlet” as part of the Castle Theatre Festival, has great potential, but Kathy Biesinger’s sloppy directing of it makes it a shambles.

First, the concept is good: It’s “Hamlet,” as told through the eyes of two minor characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Cristian Bell and Benji Smith) are Hamlet’s childhood friends whom Claudius enlists to help figure out what’s bothering Hamlet lately. They truly are minor characters in “Hamlet,” but in “R&G,” they take center stage — and they take it, usually by themselves, usually standing around talking about nothing, for over 2 1/2 hours.

Second, the casting is fun. Since “Hamlet” is being performed on the same stage as “R&G,” with the two shows alternating nights, most of the “Hamlet” characters who appear in “R&G” are played by the same actors. If you see “Hamlet” first (which you definitely should, since a working knowledge of that play is essential to understanding “R&G”), it could have been fun to watch the dignified Claudius (Chris Kendrick), so serious and morose in “Hamlet,” act like a ninny in “R&G.” Since “Hamlet” is so good at making the characters seem real, seeing the same actors parody themselves in “R&G” could have been a delight.

But it doesn’t turn out that way. For one thing, Hamlet himself is played by a different actor in “R&G” — David D’Agostini. He does a fine job, but it would have been so much funnier to have David Morgan, who plays Hamlet in the other show, play the part again here — only this time a bit sillier. An opportunity lost, and maybe a small one, but in a show so lacking in bright spots, anything would have helped.

The problem, ultimately, is not the cast members, but the casting. Everyone involved onstage is talented. Cristian Bell and Benji Smith have enormous skill as actors, and they clearly are performing to the best of their ability. But “R&G” lives or dies on the chemistry the title characters have together. Since the play is almost nothing but those two talking, they’ve got to “click” or the play simply won’t work. And Bell and Smith, as good as they are, just don’t make the right combination here. There are moments when you catch a glimpse of what could have happened with more rehearsal, or perhaps different directing — the “asking-questions-as-a-tennis-game” scene, for example — but those are few and far between.

At one point, while pondering the mysteries of fate, Guildenstern yells at the heavens, “We are entitled to some direction!” And you think, “Yeah, he’s right. He, and Rosencrantz, and the entire cast, really could have used some more direction.” The embarrassingly ham-fisted pirate-attack scene is another example of that. It’s as if Biesinger told the actors to get onstage and just run around for a while. It’s oddly choreographed (if it was choreographed at all), and amateurish.

The script to this play is funny; this production of this play is not. It winds up sounding like a bad Elizabethan “Seinfeld,” with the main characters tediously standing around saying things like, “What’s the matter?” “What does it matter.” “Doesn’t it matter?” “It doesn’t matter.” It’s exhausting, really, having to endure so much of NOTHING when it’s not even making you laugh.

Two bright spots: Richard Clifford as the leader of the acting troupe (he plays the same role, with equal skill, in “Hamlet”) performs with energy and zeal. And Michael Cox as Alfred — a member of the acting troupe who usually has to dress in drag — is undignified, silent and very, very funny in his little bits. Often, what he does on the sidelines is far more entertaining than whatever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are babbling on about at center stage.

I was looking forward to this play because I knew of the clever double-casting, and because I knew from first-hand experience that several of the actors were very good. I also knew that the script itself could be funny, if it's pulled off right. It wasn't pulled off right here, unfortunately.