Worm's Eye Hamlet

Consider the bit characters of the dramatic world. After they've strutted their 45 seconds on the stage, what occupies their time? Are they off eating dinner, spending time with their sweethearts, oblivious of the crucial moment when they're needed to further by one turn of the wheel a story that, for the most part, isn't theirs? Or do they sit, suspended in amber, to be brought back to life only long enough to contribute their lines? In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play that instantly skyrocketed Tom Stoppard to major status at age 29, the playwright takes as his premise the lives of two characters in Hamlet who are so incidental, so bland that most people likely won't even remember them.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in Hamlet for less than 100 lines. Two boyhood friends of Hamlet's who have been called to Denmark by his uncle Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist in the Shakespearean tragedy only as foolish fops who Hamlet can make fun of. They're sent to accompany the prince to England with a letter calling for his death; he gives them the slip and substitutes a letter dictating theirs. Of course, Hamlet has to die anyway because his play is a tragedy, and you can't escape your fate in a tragedy even if you're the king (or the king in waiting). But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just bland boobs who've had the misfortune to get tangled in someone else's bloody season. Hamlet dispenses of his two supposedly dear friends without so much as batting an eyelash, as does Shakespeare. In Hamlet's final scene, bodies strewn everywhere, it's announced that -- oh, by the way -- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, too. The announcement comes just 22 lines from the end of the play, and is so incidental that, often, directors simply omit the pair altogether from Hamlet productions.

This all doesn't seem fair, Stoppard's premise seems to say. So he went in to give the two incidental characters a little life before they have to submit to death. (At least a critic doesn't have to worry about giving away the ending -- it's right there in the title.) Why Shakespeare even bothered to write the duo into his work is a bit of a mystery, and it becomes the overwhelming concern of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "Why are we here?" they keep asking each other. In seeking the answer to this, Stoppard gives the worm's eye view of the Danish court as opposed to Shakespeare's royal vantage. For example, after a tense and grand-iloquent exchange between the doomed pair and Hamlet, the prince exits and Rosencrantz moans, "I want to go home!"

Like Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead functions on levels both high and low. We have nose-picking jokes and spit-blown-back-in-the-face jokes. Yet we also have a running banter of commentary on the meaning of life and fate and possibility and death that echoes the concerns of Stoppard's Elizabethan predecessor.

But while Shakespeare's melancholy Dane pondered his existential questions dolefully and impassionedly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bounce them back and forth like they're engaged in a mad game of handball on a too-small court. The pair even play a game of word tennis, with points off for repetitions and rhetorical statements. ("Are you deaf?"; "Am I dead?"; "Yes or no?"; "Is there a choice?"; "Is there a God?"; "Foul! No non sequiturs, three-two, one game all.") As conspicuous as you'd think the incorporated bits of Shakespearean dialogue would be, they actually blend in reasonably well with Stoppard's brilliantly heady verbiage, which leaps and swoops like a daring young man on a flying trapeze -- although you're not always sure the trapeze is connected to the ceiling.

The play is Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's, and if the actors playing them aren't crackerjack, the evening is useless. Happily, in the production now under way at the University of Houston, James Parsons and Matthew Carter possess their roles with an easy presence and a deft wit -- the stage is theirs. Their timing is almost always impeccable -- an important issue, given that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a timing play. The swashbuckling word play could easily become tiresome. But that doesn't happen with Parsons and Carter. We eat it up and want more.

Director Sidney Berger deserves a good part of the applause for the bang-up comic timing. He has a splendid instinct for comedy, both broad and subtle. He's drawn from his student leads performances that lack nothing in depth of understanding and sophistication. And the secondary players get their due as well: Peter Liew was a rough-and-ready Player King, heading a wonderfully rapscallion band of bawdy prostitutes-cum-players -- most especially poor, put upon Alfred, who has to play all the female parts, and who's portrayed by Charlie Lee as snifflingly abject and thoroughly winning.

Berger's one misstep is his casting and direction of Hamlet as a ludicrous fop. Although self-obsessed and self-important, Hamlet and the other royal participants should give off an awesome aura, a larger-than-life dramatic presence to serve as foil to Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's comic Everyman plight and unwitting martyrdom. But Darrell Womack's Hamlet is silly; with ridiculous long locks and a flouncy black lace scarf tied around his arm, his exaggerated moaning and mooning is so asinine as to make his presence an irritant. I lay the fault less at the feet of the actor than those of the director, for this was clearly an error in directing from an otherwise wonderfully turned comic piece.

Unfortunately, the University of Houston's theatrical productions rarely get reviewed here because of their short runs. But the UH School of Theatre -- led by Berger, who's also responsible for Miller Theatre's annual summer Shakespeare festival -- presents shows that generally don't play as mere student productions. For the most part, they are in the same league with the sub-Alley stratum of theater in Houston. And when they come up with something as well-honed and entertaining as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they're well worth attending.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays through November 20 at the University of Houston's Wortham Theater, entrance no. 16 off Cullen. 743-2928.


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