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An unusual version of Stoppard from The New Ehrlich

ROSENCRANTZ AND

GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD

Written by Tom Stoppard.

Directed by Richard W. Freeman.

Starring Vincent P. Mahler

and Chris Tarjan.

At the New Ehrlich Theatre until April 8.

By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON

GIVEN ITS FRACTURED structure, mixing Shakespearean characters with modern dialogue, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the kind of play that easily lends itself to multiple interpretations. Last Friday, the New Ehrlich Theatre presented an unusual version of the play that included cross-casting, two actors playing the part of one, and a royal family of Denmark portrayed as 1950s icons.

Stoppard's absurdist piece deals with the fates of the two most insignificant characters in Hamlet -- the prince's two faithless school friends brought to Denmark to "glean what afflicts him." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern describes what happens when these two characters are brought to the forefront of a play -- trapped in a topsy-turvy world with which they are unfamiliar, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend the bulk of the play engaged in a constant search for direction. They are never in control of their lives; all their actions are pre-determined by those of the Shakespearean characters, and indeed, we know how they are going to end up from the play's very title.

Environment designer Chris Hale did a spectacular job of turning the New Ehrlich's warehouse-like space into a bizarre, flea-market atmosphere, with television monitors and open-air dressing rooms scattered around the set. The main stage is a raised gray platform from which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never escape until their "deaths" at the close of the play. The trajedians and Shakespearean characters mill around the dressing rooms, powdering their faces, playing cards, or painting abstract pictures until they are called upon to play their parts.

There was one fundamental problem with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: The title characters are supposed to be nearly interchangeable, and Chris Tarjan's pompous, sarcastic Guildenstern overwhelmed Vincent P. Mahler's much more reticent Rosencrantz. In scenes where there should have been no clear leader of the pair, Tarjan's overbearing attitude served to distinguish Guildenstern from Rosencrantz, a fatal error since later scenes call for other characters -- and even the pair themselves -- to confuse one another's identities. Mahler's calm-but-clueless Rosencrantz was played much truer to Stoppard's characterization, and Tarjan could have taken a cue from his co-star.

Director Richard W. Freeman offered two bizarre but largely successful casting changes: the Player was portrayed by two actors, one male and one female, and King Claudius and Queen Gertrude were represented respectively as a female Elvis impersonator and a transvestite Marilyn Monroe. The division of lines between the Players was well done, with the gypsy-costumed Nancy Davis taking the more enthusiastic lines and dapper 1910 gentleman Bob Jolly taking the cynical ones. Jolly was especially convincing; his wide theatrical gestures, exaggerated rolling of the letter "r," and barely-British accent made him the epitome of Stoppard's world-weary Player, a bitter man resigned to prostitute his art to the whims of popular culture.

It took a while to get used to Heather Glenn's Elvis-does-Shakespeare reading of King Claudius, but David Mold's hefty, six-foot Marilyn Monroe was immediately winning. Chip Cross also did a more than creditable job as James Dean's Hamlet; the scenes in which he lustfully pursued coy Ophelia (also portrayed by Jolly) were hilarious.

Overall, the New Ehrlich's rendition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is highly entertaining, with only a few rough spots. A little more polish in characterization could make this a truly fine production.