Tom Stoppard’s “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet” is like a thinking person’s Marx Brothers movie. His “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is that same thinking person’s version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” with a dose of “Waiting for Godot” thrown in to sweeten the stew. These companion pieces, so different yet so alike, are playing at Lakewood Playhouse.
The evening leads off with “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet,” which is just what the title implies: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” pared down to a mere 15 minutes. A talented and perfectly in-sync ensemble cast delivers rapid-fire the most famous lines from “Hamlet,” with a big helping of physical comedy, in the tradition of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged).”
As soon as the ensemble quickly skewers the classic tragedy, they follow with a five-minute encore (fewer words and everything sped up), immediately followed by a one-minute version. It is slapstick of the highest order.
The troupe is led by a droll Nathan Rice as The Player and Dylan Twiner as Hamlet.
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That is the appetizer.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is the main course.
It is a long, complex and brilliant comedy featuring Frank Roberts as Rosencrantz and Paul Richter as Guildenstern, two characters from Hamlet who did not appear in “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.” Roberts and Richter play off each other like musicians who have been improvising together for their shared lifetime.
The play opens with a crazy routine in which they investigate the laws of probability by tossing coins with an insane amount of repetition. One might think that too much repetition would become boring, but as Stoppard wrote this scene and as Roberts and Richter perform it, it is crazy funny. In a similarly funny scene later on, they turn philosophical discussion; i.e., debate, into a game of tennis with points scored according to a set of rules only they comprehend — rules they change at will.
Throughout the show they tackle such deep subjects as the nature of life and death — what would you prefer, being locked in a little box forever or being dead in the box (at least you wouldn’t know you were suffering, or do the dead know they’re dead?) What is the meaning of life? What are we doing here? Where are we going? Who are we? Throughout, they get confused about who they are. Am I Rosencrantz or am I Guildenstern? Perhaps they are neither. Perhaps they are actors waiting to go onstage for their brief appearance as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Stoppard poses these questions, but R & G do not answer them or can’t agree on the answers. That is up to the audience.
Familiarity with “Hamlet” helps with understanding “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” but understanding might not even matter. It might be enough to simply get swept up by the verbal fireworks, of which there are plenty.
For readers who might want a little more explanation, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were minor and forgettable characters in “Hamlet.” They were childhood friends of Prince Hamlet who were sent to spy on him and who accompanied him on a trip to England. In this play, they are the main characters, but they have no idea why they have been cast in these roles. Along the way on this mission they don’t understand, they run into all the main characters in the Shakespeare play, from Gertrude (Dayna Childs) to Claudius (Ben Stahl) to Polonius (W. Scott Pinkston) to Ophelia (Gabi Marler) to a cast of stock characters in the traveling theater troupe. These are all the same actors, in the same roles, as in “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.”
Stoppard’s writing is inspired, intelligent and hilarious. The acting throughout is outstanding. Blake York’s rough-looking set — a brick wall and a bunch of boxes — and Aaron Mohs-Hale’s lighting are wonderful. Rochelle-Ann Graham’s costumes are suitable for the characters, time and place, except for the modern tennis shoes worn by the main characters. These out-of-place shoes are harbingers of a great running joke.
The two plays together are long, but worth every minute.
Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through May 7.
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood.
Information: 253-588-0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org.