On the stage of Hilbert College's Swan Auditorium, the home base of Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, two minor characters from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" find themselves in a perplexing situation.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, former besties of Hamlet who have been hired to spy on the Danish prince by the evil King Claudius, are suddenly the stars of their own play. For reasons completely unknown.
Why are they there? How did they get there? What is their mission? What can they do to pass the time? These are the surface questions that playwright Tom Stoppard has posed to himself, and his answers make up one of the most amusing and intelligent entries into the absurdist canon.
On a deeper level, of course, Stoppard was using these two buffoonish minor Shakespeare characters to ask much larger questions of the kind world-weary existentialists continue to ask to this day: Why are we here? How did we get here? What is our mission? And so on.
The conceit of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is clever in a few dozen delightful ways, perhaps most of all because it encourages us to imagine even minor dramatic characters as fully formed people with histories and futures beyond what the playwright envisioned. Think of it: Right now, somewhere in the dramatic cosmos, the Gypsy Rose Lee of Arthur Laurents' imagination is plying her trade on some stage in Seattle; those guys from "Waiting For Godot," an obvious inspiration for this piece, are presumably still waiting.
This consummate production of Stoppard's play, which pays keen attention to the playwright's precise wordplay, stars BLT founder Taylor Doherty and his frequent collaborator Ray Boucher. Boucher's Guildenstern - or is it Rosencrantz, as these guys are never quite sure who they are - is brash and impatient, while Doherty's Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz?) is his wonderfully goofy and good-natured foil.
Their interaction, sometimes slapstick, sometimes sharp-edged and almost always screechingly funny, makes Stoppard's fast-paced and potentially confusing dialogue easy to swallow. This play, often bungled by college theater departments because of its overwhelming linguistic complexity, can easily go awry.
And if this production began by befuddling its audience on a recent Saturday night, it ended with torrents of laughter. In the middle of the first act, a student in the row behind me whispered earnestly to his friend: "I'm so confused." By the end of the evening, the row of students was audibly entertained.
Most of that is due to Doherty and Boucher's interaction, but it receives a great deal of help from Katie White, whose confident performance as the leader of a troupe of actors is perfectly pitched. (She delivers one line that rings true with theater people everywhere: "You should have caught us in better times. We were purists then.") That troupe's performance of "The Murder of Gonzago" received a lovely treatment from choreographer Kathleen Golde, who turned the affair into a visually arresting aerial ballet.
Stoppard's masterpiece, funny as it is, gets straight to the heart of why we have the theater. Not to solve any of life's grand problems, or even to answer that big existentialist question of "Why?"- but to reveal life for what it is. As The Player, White said it best:
"I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality."
Three and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
What: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"
When: Through Sept. 29
Where: Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, Swan Auditorium, Hilbert College, 5200 South Park Ave., Hamburg
Info: 202-9033 or www.buffalolabtheatre.org