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Waiting on Hamlet

[whitespace] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Pat Kirk

Lost in the Woods: Rosencrantz (Peter Morgan, left) and Guildenstern (Peter Schmuckal, right) wrestle with their predicament while the Player (Gigi Steyer) looks on.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to figure out their place in the Bard's grand Scheme

By Anne Gelhaus

IN RECENT SEASONS, City Lights Theater Company has often leaned toward the surreal in its script choices, but realizing the more fantastic aspects of these plays on stage has been another matter. So it's good to see that the company can finesse a work as quirky and existential as Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a comedy that uses two minor characters from Hamlet to ponder the big questions about the nature of being in very silly ways.

The play is not so much a behind-the-scenes look as a between-the-lines peek at what happens to these characters outside the scope of their scenes. The answer is--very little. Neither Rosencrantz (Peter Morgan) nor Guildenstern (Peter Schmuckal) knows where he is, why he's there or what he's supposed to do next, and the pair's efforts to find out these things are thwarted by the fact that they can only play themselves as written.

Shakespeare's unseen but omnipresent hand stops them from bursting in on Hamlet (Rick Robinson) when they have the chance to interrupt one of his soliloquies to ask him what the hell is going on, and in those scenes in which they do appear, they are forced to stick to the script, which provides them with very little information and lots of time to discuss it.

These discussions take place in blocks of rapid-fire dialogue punctuated by silences, during which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wait along with the audience for something to happen. Both Morgan and Schmuckal handle this dichotomy well; their deliveries are polished, and their physical demeanors speak volumes in the play's quieter moments.

Stoppard uses the play-within-a-play in Hamlet to comment on the existential nature of theater itself. Gigi Steyer is nicely acerbic as the head of the troupe of tragedians called upon to perform for Claudius (Jeremy Southard) and his court. Having played out the scenario hundreds of times, she knows the fate that awaits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but is more concerned that an audience be there to see it unfold.

The play's setting is described as "a place without any visible character," and scenic designer Kani Seifert and lighting designer John Ryan see to that quite well. The stage is almost bare save for an ornate door that would presumably lead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the action, were they allowed to walk through it, and it is bathed in a neutral blue glow that gives it the look of limbo.

While most people wouldn't want to be stuck in this freakish landscape outside the confines of a theater, it's fun to navigate the terrain from the safety of the house. This production proves what City Lights is capable of when the company plunges headlong into surrealistic territory instead of just wading in up to its knees.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through May 16 at City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $10-$15. (408/295-4200)

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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