At least Hamlet had the choice "to be or not to be." The titular heroes of Tom Stoppard's lively philosophical spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, have no such luck. Doomed to the fate Shakespeare wrote for them in Hamlet (hanging) and devoid of any memory beyond the given circumstances of that play--"There was a messenger, he called our names"--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more hopeless than hapless. It's cerebral comedy, though the laughs are meatier than those of Beckett, and there's plenty of physical humor thanks to a compromised troupe of down-on-their luck actors, not to mention the purposeful cast of Hamlet, all of whom are now relegated to the cameo roles once occupied by our heroes.
Cat Parker's direction is appropriately whimsical, but filled with odd choices that distract from Stoppard's existential crisis. The choice to stage it in the round is an excellent one: the audience stays in the center, stuck with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the troupe of actors--notably free to come and go as they please--fly around the outskirts, maintaining the dizzy (non)sense necessary to understand this world. However, it makes little sense to have R&G direct some of their lines to the audience--the show is meta enough; if they can see us watching, then they're not nearly as alone as they frighteningly imply.
Likewise, while George Allison's set is terrific--as always, he transforms the studio space in ways that deepen the play--its symbolism is too obvious: two wooden coffins are used in a variety of ultimately unnecessary ways. The best moments ignore the coffins entirely, or make use of Allison's trick staircase to stick with the "realism" of Elsinore's throne room, where the scenes within Hamlet take place. "Words," says Guildenstern, "are all we've got to go on," so why all the pomp and circumstance?
But the show isn't about the exterior--it's about the interior. What makes a character? Guildenstern worries that "truth is only that which is taken to be true," especially since all he knows is what he's told. (Given circumstances, indeed!) And in this case, Eric Percival and Julian Elfer have made a fine hand out of the cards they've been dealt, leaping into the text with nimble legs and tongues. Parker's best moments come from her nurturing of the repeating gags in the play, and as Rosencrantz, Percival manages to make each moment fresh. Elfer, on the other hand, doesn't even make "moments"--he's immersed so fully in the role that his exasperation is pure, seamless entertainment. (It helps that he resembles Tim Roth, who has the iconic take in the film version.) Both are well-matched by Erik Jonsun, the Player, who--despite dressing like Jack Sparrow--wisely downplays his role, allowing the laughs to come naturally. If Stoppard's play is about identity, it is also about contrasts, and because Jonsun remains straight, it allows him to show the difference between his manic tragedians, the stilted characters from Hamlet (Tim Weinert's a delightful Hamlet), and, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Despite being somewhat imbalanced in the middle--Stoppard's fault, though you can't blame him for being too enamored of his terrific concept--Parker's direction remains fairly smooth. There are nice transitions--one jumps out in which Rosencrantz freezes, mid-coin flip, and awakes in a new scene--and the verbal games (like Questions) have a nice bounce to them, with every back-and-forth nuance connecting. "If our spontaneity were a part of their order," says Guildenstern, "then we'd know that we were lost." It's directed well enough that although these bits are obviously planned, they do seem to be spur-of-the-moment, a mark that both leads have internalized the syllogisms and non-sequiturs that they've been given. Suffice to say, this revival is not lost, and its Rosencrantz and Guildestern are very much alive.