What's the emotional life of a character who's been underwritten? In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a thespian expounds on the ultimate humiliation that is performing without an audience. Performances are meant to be seen, and without attention paid, the act of bringing a story to life becomes a bitter farce. This is how actors feel, but what about the characters they play? Do they feel neglected to have fate cast them in a fundamentally unimportant role?
Most people will be familiar with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a lauded Tom Stoppard play that follows aching and confusion that define two witheringly minor characters in Hamlet. As put up by Lakewood Playhouse, wonderfully directed by Beau M.K. Prichard, Frank Roberts and Paul Richter star as the titular Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - or, is that Roberts as Guildenstern and Richter as Rosencrantz? The characters themselves never seem to be sure about who's who, nor are they certain of where they were or what they were doing from moment to moment. They exist in a consistently addled state, engaging in labyrinthine conversations about the laws of probability, the relative merits and negatives of death, and what it means to be an accessory to someone else's story.
I feel confident in saying that Lakewood Playhouse's production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the best theater I've had the pleasure of seeing in my time writing for this fine rag. It starts with the material, which everyone knows is top notch, but it doesn't stop there. Stoppard's writing is challenging, exhausting, enlivening, philosophical, metaphysical, and lightly surreal, but it would topple under its own weight without performances to match that pedigree. Roberts and Richter invite you to keep up with them for long stretches of circular, intellectually intimidating exchanges, and they do so with an ease that belies the monumental difficulty of the jobs they've been given. Their casting is a major coup, with the pair's very physical presence effortlessly evoking a classic comedy dynamic (Roberts stands head and shoulder above Richter, calling to mind certain iconic duos).
Yes, this is definitely a comedy, and all of the players handle the material exceptionally well, but there's a hefty undercurrent of menace and melancholy. Pitched on either side of the line, the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be equally played for farce or tragedy, yet falls intriguingly in between. Also of note is a very strong performance from Nate Rich, essentially the third lead, as the aforementioned thespian; the mouthpiece for a roving troupe of tragedians, Rich gets access to some of the most blithely silly lines, as well as foreboding monologues that convey a knowledge that our poor heroes will likely never attain.
All of this is enhanced by haunting, evocative lighting by Aaron Mohs-Hale, which adds to the dreamlike vibe of the play: rather than blackouts, the production favors long, agonizing fades to black, as if the characters were fading to sleep before awaking in a strange location. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, confusion is a constant, and anxiety about reality is met by the brick wall of inaction.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through May 7, $19-$25, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW, Lakewood, 253.588.0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org