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The Man With Two Danes

Stoppard Explores Life, Death, and Words in Center Stage's Thoughtful Production

WORD: Michael Jean Dozier (left) and Howard W. Overshown hang on.

By John Barry | Posted 2/27/2008

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

By Tom Stoppard

At Center Stage through March 9

For a moment, toward the end of Center Stage's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz--or is it Guildenstern?--stares at the bowler of his gentle companion, who has disappeared offstage. He doesn't have anything to do but play the old coin-flipping game that they had played together. It doesn't work. And that brings up the question that Tom Stoppard develops during his play. If all we do is talk to ourselves, why is it we always need other people to do so?

It's frustrating and fascinating: The two hapless protagonists appear to occupy different sides of the same brain. The audience, too, is invited into this game of self-referential speed checkers. And Stoppard is in his own little corner, playing his mind games. It's a labyrinthine hall of mirrors, but it's a challenge that any director has to meet without getting lost.

As with most Stoppard plays, this one requires passing familiarity with an acknowledged classic. You'll get most of the references here, unless you were sleeping all the way through high school. Two regular guys, Guildenstern (Howard W. Overshown) and Rosencrantz (Michael Jean Dozier) find themselves in the middle of Hamlet; they play the messengers. Their only claim to fame is that these old college friends of the Danish prince (Paul Story) are fated to deliver a note to the king of England, condemning Hamlet to death. As the tragedy rages around them, the two bit parts are left doing what most people do: wondering what the point is. And the only thing they know for certain is that they're going to die, which gives the audience something to chew on.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has received more than its fair share of exposure since its 1967 debut, but you can't blame that on Center Stage. In fact, this is the first Stoppard play staged at Center Stage in 30 years. That alone is a bold statement for any regional theater to make. It also leads you to think that director Irene Lewis has finally pulled out this existentialist-lite war-horse for a reason. And, in fact, she has--with a production less exuberant but more thoughtful than many of the versions of this play that this reviewer has seen over the years.

Many R&G productions try to up the ante on the players' Laurel and Hardy routine. Here the two principals achieve a chatty, subdued symbiosis, which is almost a running commentary on the strange things circling around them. Dozier's Rosencrantz is a clumsy ingénue with flashes of unintentional wit. As Guildenstern, Overshown is a dreadlocked, somewhat pedantic alpha of the relationship, but his occasionally barbed comments never get in the way of his genuine affection for his friend. By the play's end, this approach is musical in its effect. Their somewhat puzzled, endless dialogue leaves the audience focused on the strange world into which they've been transferred.

Lewis leaves the spotlight on the night's true star. Here, Laurence O'Dwyer, veteran of countless comic roles at Center Stage, comes into a role that he's been waiting for all his life. With rouged cheeks and a shaved head that makes him look like an Elizabethan Humpty Dumpty, O'Dwyer takes control of the production as the director of Hamlet's itinerant theater troupe. He's a funny, grotesque, endearing, ominous presence who appears to be the puppeteer of this very performance.

One of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's added benefits is that directors are given the opportunity to do whatever they want with Hamlet without getting booed offstage. Lewis takes that to the limit here. As the moody Dane, Story gradually transforms from a whiny wimp into a thuggish, chain-smoking, tattooed mob boss. The band of itinerant actors, meanwhile, turn Hamlet's second-tier drama into the main attraction, with intricately choreographed, and somewhat bizarre, slapstick. And you know the way some directors like to read a little sexual undercurrent into the fact that in Elizabethan England young guys played the female roles? As the apprentice player, and in his auspicious Center Stage debut, Julliard student Daniel Kennedy gets a run for his money.

You may just want to sit back and enjoy the set. Paul Steinberg's Escher-like design transforms from a Beckettian wasteland to a churning chessboard with hidden dimensions. It fits right in. You just watch this take shape, like a strange, collapsible cathedral of words, syllogisms, and chances. Sure, it's about words, but there's something inherently minimalist at the core of Stoppard: a sense that at any moment the house of cards could collapse.

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