It was 44 years ago that Tom Stoppard erupted into the theater world with a brash play that found the common ground between Waiting for Godot and Hamlet.
Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in an era when such events truly focused on work at the edge of theatrical convention. Now Stoppard is one of the most venerable figures in English-language theater, and his first major play is considered a classic.
A terrific new production by Jobsite Theater shows why the play had instant appeal and why it has endured. It's fun, fast-paced and relentlessly clever, but it's also sophisticated and full of wry aphorisms and sharp observations that still resonate about art and the human condition.
The essential idea is that two minor characters from Hamlet find themselves outside the pale of their limited role in the Shakespeare play. They're without direction and purpose and spend their time in circular conversations of meaningless and answerless questions.
It's hard to escape comparisons to Godot. In this production, it's also tough to avoid references to Laurel and Hardy. David M. Jenkins and Shawn Paonessa, who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, are costumed in black suits and bowlers. Guildenstern — the slightly more insightful half of the duo — is continually flummoxed by his companion's comparative denseness.
Jenkins and Paonessa are Jobsite regulars who have worked together often, and they've never been better than they are here under Katrina Stevenson's direction. Their timing — comic and dramatic — is excellent, and they both find just enough depth in their characters to keep us interested.
If their performances weren't so strong, Paul J. Potenza might steal the show with his manic and crusty turn as the Player, who is likewise elevated from minor status in Hamlet to a central role.
Spencer Meyers offers some colorful costumes, especially for the troupe of players, and Brian Smallheer contributes an expansive but eerily impersonal set.
The notable weakness is a second act that drags, through no fault of Stevenson and the actors. Stoppard seems to have simply run out of ways to keep his play and his characters moving forward, and the play's last half becomes repetitive. It could have been trimmed, and some past productions have done exactly that. But in a significant play by an important playwright, there's a lot to be said for keeping even the shortcomings intact.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.