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Theater review: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

The Shakespeare Players of Rochester, through November 19, present "Hamlet," directed by Peter Scribner, in repertory with Tom Stoppard's 1967 play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," directed by Jean Gordon Ryon, which explores "Hamlet" through the lens of lesser-known characters. The productions share a cast, and are presented alternating days and times in order to allow audience members to see both performances.

When the play begins, Rosencrantz (Sean Michael Smith) and Guildenstern (Skylar Shaw) are dead -- or, are they? Even they don't seem to know how they exist. The plot, at first, seems a sort of holding pattern, a purgatory, an existential state of being: characters waiting for a story. (And to that end, the production has often been compared to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot.") To take their minds off this plight of non-existence, the duo banters, plays "Questions," and flips a coin which consistently lands on heads. The curiosity of this luck prompts Guildenstern -- the analyst of the two -- to wonder if they are in some sort of alternate reality. And so they are. They don't exist yet, in a way, because their part of the story doesn't exist yet.

The audience, of course, has figured out by then that they are watching "Hamlet" from behind the curtain -- "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" might be considered a spinoff of "Hamlet." Here, onstage, is Hamlet (played to hilarious satire by Spencer Christiano), bidding his love interest, Ophelia (an appropriately wan Jamie Tyrell), to "get thee to a nunnery"; there is Hamlet's newly crowned uncle, Claudius, and adulterous mother, Gertrude. The characters -- except Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- seem to come and go as they please. "It's like living in a public park," Rosencrantz cries.

Each of these scenes is fleeting, as are the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in "Hamlet." They are but messengers, perhaps friends of Hamlet, who are ultimately betrayed and killed. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" takes the cameos in "Hamlet" and makes them leading roles. The Player (Bill Alden) and the seven Tragedians, who are ultimately part of Hamlet's revenge, have fuller roles in this production than they do in "Hamlet."

Smith and Shaw are well cast in the leading roles. They're about the same age, and both actors do a commendable job with the massive amounts of snappy dialogue and rhetoric. Facial expressions and body language are equally important in this show -- a fact that, no doubt, director Jean Gordon Ryon emphasized in rehearsals, as none of the actors appear despondent at any point. Smith, who is a local filmmaker, plays the part of the airheaded Rosencrantz to perfection, fluctuating between an empty mind and the throes of anxiety. Shaw's Guildenstern, as the thinker, has many of the quotable lines in the show, which Shaw capitalizes on.

The Player's experience and confidence is a good balance to the youth and insecurities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Alden has a strong stage presence. Between him and the leading duo, there were many laughs from the audience. (And if Christiano's Hamlet portrayal is any indication, that would be a very entertaining show to see either before or after this one.)

The set, designed by John Jaeger, is simple.MuCCC's stage area has been built up into a wide corner staircase of a few steps, and the only scene with significant set pieces comes near the end of the play, when a sea voyage is suggested. The bareness of the stage adds to the questions of existence throughout. Lighting by Chris McCormack and sound by Ken Dauer is also minimal, though effective. Costumer Sarah Michelle Scarpulla stays traditional with the costumes, including stately crowns, satin dresses, and breeches. Ultimately, the success of the show relies not on special effects but on the acting and the script to carry the audience through two and a half hours -- three acts, with two 15-minute intermissions -- of dialogue.

Inside the program, there's an insert dedicating both shows to the memory of Carl E. Girard, an active young member of the local theater scene and 2002 Nazareth College graduate who passed away earlier this year. This, like many other things, is a testament to the hard work and camaraderie shared by Rochester's performing artists. Rochester is fortunate to have a theatrical society dedicated to Shakespearean works, and a repertory venture is a particularly admirable accomplishment, especially on the budget and time constraints of a community group.

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