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St. Louis Shakespeare Brilliantly Examines Mortality with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in over their heads. They're on the road for reasons they can't recall, heading somewhere they don't know, and they both feel that something recently has changed, but they can't put their finger on what — it might be that they can't remember which of them goes with which name. And then there is Rosencrantz's incredible winning streak at the coin toss — nothing but heads for more than 80 straight tosses, with no end in sight.

Watching Tom Stoppard's infrequently produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is akin to trying to spot a fussy cat in the dark. You can't look directly at it if you want to find the meaning; instead you watch from your peripheral vision, apprehending the shape first and the meaning only after your eyes adjust. St. Louis Shakespeare's current production of the play is beguiling and breathtaking, a cunning bit of magic that draws you deeper into the eerie happenings that surround our two baffled heroes. Once you can actually see them, it's clear that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are as common and as extraordinary as any of us. It's quite a trick, and expertly managed by director Suki Peters and her large cast.

The duo are lost because they're off-stage at Shakespeare's Hamlet, which is happening somewhere to the left of wherever they are. Rosencrantz (Robert Thibaut) and Guildenstern (Ted Drury) bumble along toward their brief moment on that stage, understanding nothing of the schemes being spun by Hamlet, his uncle Claudius and Claudius' right-hand man Polonius, even as those schemes directly involve them. Rosencrantz is mostly unbothered by his ignorance (he's on a winning streak), while Guildenstern haplessly rails against whatever force has ensnared them by trying endlessly to retrace the events that led them to this moment.

"Aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies," says the Player. - RON JAMES
  • RON JAMES
  • "Aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies," says the Player.

All they know is that when the Player (Isaiah Di Lorenzo) and his troupe of actors cross their paths, the pace speeds up. The Player offers the boys gnomic advice about how to perform a death scene, jumping and posing extravagantly. This charming rogue knows how theater works and what audiences want, and he explains that actors "aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies." It is both a heavily dropped hint and an oblique commentary on the play's title. Di Lorenzo's delivery generates knowing laughs from the audience, but his probing eyes also remind us that this pronouncement is true for us all.

That's Stoppard's endgame, and Thibaut and Drury are excellent at making us forget it again and again. They question their fate and ours, finding unexpected beauty and humor in their plight — and our own. "The only thing that makes it bearable is the belief that someone interesting will come along," Rosencrantz says at one point. Shortly thereafter Hamlet (Scott McDonald) shows up in a "God save the queen" t-shirt, proving his point. "We drift idly toward eternity with no hope of explanation or reprieve," a fully exasperated Guildenstern says. Then they board the ship upon which they will pass from this world.

They do so with as much human dignity as they can muster, which is quite a bit. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is absurd, tragic and comic, but so is death. And so is life. It's a testament to the strength of the performers and this production that the latter is the overriding feeling you have when it's over.

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