The cast of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” now playing at Old Academy Players: Bottom row (left to right) – Rafael Schneider, Brendan Sterling, Brian Jedinak and Robert Rueben; Middle row – Charles Mueller, Ina-Louise Thomas, Norman Burnosky and Brittany Fauzer; Top row – Jamaal White, Carl Heine and Nick Ware

by Hugh Hunter

Director Sarah Labov lights up the stage at Old Academy Players with a sparkling production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (1966). In his Tony award-winning absurdist comedy, playwright Tom Stoppard turns “Hamlet” on its head, sidelining major characters to put a couple of marginal courtiers in lead roles.

On a few occasions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear in actual scenes from Shakespeare’s play. But most of the time they stand outside of it in comical confusion, commenting on life and observing Hamlet, trying to figure out who he is and what they themselves are doing there.

Brian Jedinak shines as Guildenstern, always in gloomy, thinker mode. In the final boat scene he agonizes: “We’ve traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move daily towards eternity without possibility of reprieve or hope or explanation.” In contrast, a half-smile always plays across the face of Brendan Sterling’s Rosencrantz. He argues back: “Be happy; If you’re not even happy what’s so good about striving. We’ll be all right.”

“Rosencrantz” is full of meta-theater touches that remind the audience they are watching a play. Charles Mueller plays “The Player,” the director of the ragtag “Tragedians.” Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Player knows who he is – an actor on stage. With amusing flourish, Mueller’s Player is condescending towards the confounded courtiers, telling them “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.”

Labov’s production is flush. Her blocking of the goofball “Tragedians” is joyously romper room, and she uses Stoppard’s music and lighting cues to earn a Brechtian “alienation effect.” Set designs are heady, and thanks to Helga Krauss and Kimberly Hess, colorful 16th-century costumes create a sense of place and period.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are absurdist Every Man characters, so perplexed about their identities they almost become two sides of one person. In trying to figure out what Hamlet wants, they invent a question-and-answer game that invokes the competitive language of a tennis match, suggesting they are just as interested in trying to rub each other out of existence.

What do we know? What do we want from each other? For sure, “Rosencrantz” owes a debt to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” less metaphorical, more comical and talky in its existential lament. The play is not a Shakespeare parody but a rejection of the idea that even a work as great as “Hamlet” has that much to say about the individual’s absurdist reality.

To emphasize this theme, Guildenstern continually mangles another authority, the “Lord’s Prayer.” (At one point he says: “Give us this day our daily mask…”) “Rosencrantz” is more cerebral than emotionally involving. It delights you with a constant stream of wordplay and chaotic situations because Stoppard is a showman who insists on entertaining in Monty Python fashion.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540 Indian Queen Ln. in East Falls. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” will run through Nov 17. More information at OldAcademyPlayers.org or 215-843-1109.

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