Henley Street Theatre Company's “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is filled with delightful moments of clever wordplay, pseudo-serious philosophizing and random acts of hilarity.
Tom Stoppard's absurdist tale, entirely a tangent following two characters from Shakespeare's “Hamlet,” may strain the patience of those hungry for plot and annoyed by the ridiculous. But as rendered by director Michael Sater's all-woman cast, this production rewards the attentive with flashes of something resembling insight and, if nothing else, several hearty laughs.
Emma Mason, the somewhat somber and intellectual Guildenstern, contrasts with the enthusiastically simple Rosencrantz, portrayed by Kerry McGee. This surrealist Abbott and Costello stumble along in their predestined supporting roles to the main tragedy, never quite sure what they're doing or why. This setup provides ample room for banter about choice, identity and, of course, death. Along the way they meet a ribald Player (Terry Menefee Gau), accompanied by a merry band of thespians, who delivers many self-conscious digs at the nature of theater. The duo is inevitably double-crossed by a Hamlet (Rebecca Anne Muhleman) who they never really recognize.
Kudos to Mason and McGee for deftly managing the significant technical demands of their roles, a breathtaking rapid-fire game of “Questions” being just one scene in which Stoppard's dense dialogue would overwhelm lesser talents. In addition, McGee uses her expressive features to lend her character a refreshing wide-eyed optimism. Mason's Guildenstern is a bit one-note, but she also softens a character that otherwise could seem a bit stuffy.
Employing a strictly female cast may have dramaturgical ramifications but the biggest impact here is functional: Several talented actresses play — and shine in — roles they wouldn't normally have. Chief among these is Gau, whose extravagant theatricality is the most consistently entertaining aspect of the production. Also, Muhleman gives Hamlet a wryly sinister edge.
The action plays out on a mostly bare stage, with lighting designer Andrew Bonniwell's variations in brightness enhancing the mood. Some of Shannon Bohn McCallister's costumes look like children's dress ups, but most are fine in this context. The focus here is on the loopy text, and the Henley ensemble has risen to the challenge, delivering a smart and snappy slice of the absurd. S
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” shows at Pine Camp Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, through March 28. Tickets are $15-$20. Call 340-0115 or visit www.henleystreettheatre.org.