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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, offers a humorous take on philosophy and mortality



While many plays celebrate the glory and nobility of the average person, the fact remains that we ordinary blokes are nothing more than insignificant ciphers in the march of history. That sad fact is captured in the wonderful absurdist imaginings of playwright Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Produced in a substantially abridged form by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival and touring various outdoor venues around town, the play imagines how the two most minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet manage their meager existences in the shadow of the prince of Denmark.

Living their lives in the uncertainty that is the sad lot of bit players, R&G spend their time flipping coins and pondering the oddities of chance (as the coins land "heads up" 92 times in a row). Racked with an ambivalence that makes Hamlet look like a paragon of decision-making, the pair can't even decide how to exit a room. So they stay put.

And they spend a good deal of time musing about death, as anyone might whose entire existence is wrapped up in Hamlet. On the boat heading to England, slow-witted but agile Rosencrantz wonders: "Is death a boat?" Guildenstern replies, "No, you can't 'not be' on a boat." To which Rosie retorts, "I frequently have 'not been' on a boat."

Guided by director John C. Davis, the actors handle Stoppard's heady and clever script in fine style. Erin McCardle gives Guildenstern a rational through line, and Allen Branstein's Rosencrantz dashes off in all (wrong) directions at once. As the Player King, the leader of a troupe of actors who wander through R&G's barren offstage life, Chris Bizub exudes thespian charm and arrogance in equal amounts.

Conveniently, R&G is being performed in repertory with Hamlet — each concluded in two hours or less, with many actors playing the same characters in both. And since all showings are free of charge, you can easily afford to attend and cross-reference both plays, wallowing happily in the resulting synergy.

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