This is no spoiler: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” An ambassador from England announces this at the end of Hamlet and this masterpiece from Tom Stoppard. Anyone who is familiar with Hamlet or has even read the title of Stoppard's classic absurdist drama has a pretty good idea of where they play's action is headed. Even the protagonists, at various turns in the story, know they're going to die, though they either forget or willfully ignore the information upon receiving it every time.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s dubiously loyal old friends, are the two least significant characters to meet their unfortunate demise in Shakespeare’s original story. Stoppard, in his retelling (of sorts) of the famous play, gives the characters’ lives and deaths the weight they deserve. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on their way to visit the King of Denmark, having been summoned by a mysterious messenger on horseback. The details before that moment in the characters’ lives are hazy—both for the audience and for them. They also don’t know who the messenger is, or why they would be summoned, or even who Hamlet is, their alleged “dearest friend.” But they take all this information at face value and set out on the journey.
Along the way, the pair philosophize myopically about their existence, without ever seeming to ask the questions that really matter. They follow their fate to its forgone conclusion not because they want to or even have to, but because, for all of their questioning, confusion and fear, they can't think of one single thing they might do instead.
Stoppard's work is a brilliant exploration of our almost comically limited understanding of our own lives. “What's the first thing you can remember?” asks Rosencrantz helplessly. “I can't remember,” responds Guildenstern. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who find themselves traveling to Elsinore for no other reason than someone on a horse showed up and told them to go, you'd think that we, having been suddenly yanked from nonexistence into existence with no explanation or instruction manual, would have a lot more questions about the whole affair. But like the hapless duo, we can't really remember, so we stumble forward. What else can we possibly do?
It is impressive that student director Michelle Lawson and Scrap, UNM's student-run theater company, would choose such an immense and difficult play to produce. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is not only densely philosophical, but long, wandering and loquacious as the characters repeatedly ponder the same mysteries and run up against the same impenetrable walls.
Part of the tragedy of the play is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't hold onto who they are or what they're supposed to be doing long enough to make any forward progress, and that existential paralysis can quickly dissolve into a frustratingly redundant storyline. But the plot does move decidedly forward: Every decision the two make and fail to act upon, every impotent realization they have about their existence, every unacknowledged and unaddressed fear they express is a new tactic in a literally life-or-death battle.
It takes keen and incisive choices to create this dramatic tension in the midst of Stoppard's carefully orchestrated circularity, which this production lacks.
But Lawson and her cast and crew shouldn’t feel bad: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a ambitious project for such a young group to take on, and Lawson demonstrates that she is capable of making bold, thought-provoking choices. The curtain call (of all things!) plays on audience expectations and makes a startling statement about the nature of reality with a meta-theatrical cheekiness that perfectly echoes Stoppard's own constructs. With strong, specific choices like this one, Lawson will be on her way to tackling more complex material like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.