Tom Stoppard wasn't aiming for subtlety with the title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and much about his play is heavyhanded. He took the line from Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet and examined the plight of the two young messengers, who were childhood friends of the Prince of Denmark and became embroiled in court intrigue following the murder of the king. The feuding of the royals happens offstage, and the two young men have their own universe to ponder.
In the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's production, Brendan Bowen (Rosencrantz) and Alex Ates (Guildenstern) are entertaining as the humorously cryptic pair. The production shares a cast, costumes and a minimalist set with the festival's production of Hamlet, but the Edwardian garb seems appropriate for Stoppard's aping of Waiting for Godot, even if the duo's clothes are not as tattered as those of Samuel Beckett's vagabonds.
The play begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gambling, and as they serially toss coins, heads comes up 75 times in a row and Rosencrantz pockets all the winnings. The game exposes his content and incurious nature, and Bowen is compelling throughout as the unwittingly upbeat Rosencrantz. Guildenstern is less concerned with his losses than puzzling out what the defiance of the odds says about chance and fate. Ates was generally in command of Guildenstern's anxious if befuddled inquiries, though at times the delivery of his rapid-fire philosophizing seemed forced.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both notice and are stymied by the words and turns of phrases they use, to both humorous and absurd effect. But neither is likely to draw any grand conclusions, or even recognize one stumbled upon, and their confusion is echoed by the frequent interchanging of their names.
Characters from Hamlet enter and leave, sometimes performing scenes from that play. The best interludes are provided by the troupe of actors from the tragedy, and Scott Michael Jefferson is excellent as their leader, an alternately arrogant showman and dour observer.
The play echoes Godot's existential quandaries, but has a more social issue at stake. Vladimir and Estragon puzzle whether there is some greater meaning to their lives and thoughts. Stoppard's drama has a more earthly concern. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent on a mission about which they know little and for which they have no meaningful qualifications. To be doomed for it is less a philosophical problem than a lament. It's less about the inevitability of death than the waste of young lives. That seems muddled in director Danny Bowen's production. A concluding video flourish focuses on the tragedy of Hamlet, where almost every major character dies, and comes off as overkill. — WILL COVIELLO