Question: Is a man talking sense to himself less mad than a man talking nonsense not to himself? Or just as mad?
If overt rhetoric like this has your curiosity piqued, then the current production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by the Star Bar Players will have you in a perpetual state of blissful head-scratching. It's a continual barrage of sharp wit. If you walk into the theater in a daze, the actors will soon have you sitting up, hastily trying to sharpen your mental hacksaws.
Tom Stoppard's play is an oblique, absurd, modernist version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The play begins with the two main characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tossing coins. Jariah Walker as Rosencrantz and Andrew Porter as Guildenstern are a thrill to watch and listen to in their deft and agile coin tossing and verbal acrobatics. Walker and Porter both have some very ambitious tongue-tying work cut out for them. Their delivery of lines is like a high-speed, torque-converting, steam-blowing runaway engine. I wished they would downshift for an occasional pause or two so some of their baffling witticisms would have a chance to sink in.
Both actors paint a convincing portrait of an otherworldly state, from which their characters cannot seem to pry themselves. They're uncomfortable. They don't remember how they got there. They don't know which way is south. They simply don't know how to act. You see, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Staying within the theatrical absurdist tradition, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play grappling with the existential ponderings of life ... and death. Probing the idea of his own mortality, Rosencrantz reflects: "We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that, for all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure."
But not all of the play is burdened by the hefty existential examination of life and death. Indeed, this play is full of comedy. And it wouldn't be half the gas without Julian Bucknall as the Player. The Player is an actor who leads his band of tragedians to the king's court to perform a show. He forces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to question and probe their state of being a little further. He even shows them a little insight into their situation as he narrates a play within a play for our antiheroes. "There's a design at work in all art -- surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion."
Bucknall's performance as the Player turned out to be the real thrill of the evening. His chemistry with the other actors was nothing less than catalytic. His energy is vibrant, his presence commanding. His voice like a dark amber, finely aged port wine: rich, full-bodied, verbal ambrosia.
The other peripheral characters -- Hamlet, the King and Queen, Polonius -- were all a little disappointing. They speak and act in an entirely different rhythm than the main characters, which would be a good effect if it were clearly intentional. Kenny Knapp's performance as Alfred stood out for the theatrical risks he took for the benefit of our laughter.
If you're up for an evening of wit-sharpening theater, check out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and share whatever insight on life and death you have gleaned from the experience. But, be careful; you might be merely intrigued without being quite enlightened if you're out of practice.